A Documentary Written & Directed by Alex Winter


Yes, this documentary was written and directed by Alex Winter. You may know him better as Bill S. Preston from the Bill & Ted movies, wherein he went on not only an Excellent Adventure, but also a Bogus Journey. It seems Mr. Winter is now employing his talents behind the camera, which, from what I understand of the film industry, can be both excellent and bogus in its own right.

A terrible joke, I know. And now that it’s out of the way, let us never speak of it again.

Here Mr. Winter has decided to focus his attention on the birth and subsequent demise of Napster. That name should sound familiar as well, and for good reason. According to many, it was not so long ago that Napster brought the music industry to its metaphorical knees. Lawsuits were filed. Trials were held. Hoards of people brought their picket signs to both sides of the fence. And in the end, the only thing that could truly be considered “certain” was that a massive change had taken place, seemingly overnight.

Created in major part by the efforts of a then-teenaged Shawn Fanning, Napster was the foremost peer-to-peer file sharing program created circa 1999. Fanning had dropped out of college to pursue the idea. Eventually he joined forces with a few like-minded people, and together they made history.

If you were to ask them, Fanning and company would happily tell you their goals were modest and good-natured. All they wanted was a quick and easy way for people to share music. Napster, as the documentary argues, was in truth founded as a way to cultivate friendships. “You like this band? I also like that band!” “Well, if you like them, you’ll love these guys.” Simple, but also naïve—almost dangerously so.

And so: the Napster program is launched. It’s an immediate hit, spreads like wildfire. This, in turn, catches the eye of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), who ask the inevitable question: “Where is our money?”

Of course, no one had an answer. There simply was no money. Napster was not only a revolutionary program, it was a totally free one as well. Thus ensued the metaphorical riots.

The argument is made: “Napster is taking money away from the record labels, which means no money for recording artists, which means they won’t be able to afford to make new songs. In short, Napster is killing music.”

This argument, naturally, is made by the big wigs, the boys and girls with roots already firmly planted in the recording industry, the giants, those with money to lose.

Smaller bands without the advantages afforded to them by said giants counter: “Napster is great. It’s allowing people to hear my music, which in turn is bringing people to my concerts, which in turn is putting more money in my pocket, thus allowing me to continue in my endeavors. In short, Napster is saving my job.”

Both sides have a point. But the final word on the subject basically comes down to this: “This is the way things are now. Get with it, or get out.”

Few got with it. Fewer got out. It was this portion of the documentary that I was most fascinated by, and subsequently the portion I was most disappointed by.

Statements are made. “The business model changed.” I would have liked to have been shown how. What was the old model? How did a musician earn money from a song and/or album? What percentage went into their pockets, what percentage into the pockets of the record label? How was any of this changed by Napster, if at all? We’re never really given specifics. There is no mention of how. We are simply told that it did and it is. Speaking as a member of the generation that not only lived through this incident, but also helped to cause it, I find that approach to be fairly boring.

I guess when you get right down to it, this is the problem I have with most documentaries: they eschew information that would and could be relevant and interesting in an effort to turn their subject into a common narrative. There is little subjectivism, and I always thought that’s what documentaries were.

Downloaded picked a side. Or, since this is a film “by” Alex Winter, I think it more apt to say he picked a side. He openly builds his camp with Fanning and company, presenting the documentary as a supporter of Napster and file-sharing advocates everywhere. I can’t help but feel a little cheated by this, but I suppose that history is written by the victors.

It is funny to me that the movie can’t see beyond its own hypocrisy, though. (In truth, I found this more entertaining than the movie itself.) At one point, during the portion of the story that deals with the ensuing trial over the legality of Napster’s practices, it is said that the media (at the time) turned the case into a story of good and evil. Heroes and villains. Fanning and company were the designated dragons, the recording industry the white knights fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Of course, this isn’t true. There were no good guys and bad guys in this story, just a fistful of confused people trying to ensure their own survival.

This idea was apparently lost on Winter who painted the exact opposite picture using the same broad strokes. Napster is the hero. The RIAA is the villain. This is probably the best and easiest way to tell a coherent story. But I expect more from documentaries.