Directed By: Alex Winter
The internet has become a much more important resource than we ever thought that it could. Instead of just being a small network of computers or servers, it has become an entirely new medium that is capable of nearly infinite possibilities. One of the most impressive and important moments in the still relatively young history of the internet was the rise and fall of the music-sharing website Napster.
Napster was founded by two young internet-savvy college dropouts, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. This film is more interested in telling Shawn Fanning’s over Sean Parker’s, since he had the longer tenure with the website. We come to learn of his Northeastern upbringing, his love for computers and programming and his zeal with building this new project. Growing up a shy and lonely teenager, Shawn claims that he created Napster in order to bond with people his own age by sharing music. No one could have predicted just how successful he ended up being. His is the face that people have and should associate most with Napster.
The use of cross-cutting is a cornerstone in the film’s construction, and it’s very effective. To any media students who would be making a documentary in the future, I’d recommend watching this film in order to learn how to use the technique properly. Winter and his staff successfully tell their narrative with two voices at once; the voice of the past, which is composed of some rather impressive and comprehensive archive footage, and the voice of the present is used with some sleek-looking interviews in the modern day. These new new interviews from most of the major players behind Napster act as a more retrospective look on the events from twelve years ago, and serving as a follow-up to the individual stories.
It would be impossible to tell the story of Napster without Metallica, and they are not absent. Before they make their appearance in storyline, they are foreshadowed in the graphics and in the archived footage of the website in action. When they do make their appearance, their point of view is both understandable, and the documentary does make them more three-dimensional than it could have otherwise. In fact, Lars makes his first appearance in the film from a clip of VH1 Classic’s That Metal Show. During his interview, Lars explains how they first became aware of Napster, and he seems to express some regret for their actions.
The legal aspect of Napster is covered well, complete with a great deal of footage compiled from the actual congressional hearings and some of the trial footage. We get to see the effect the subsequent rulings had on the people who made up Napster, and this further provides a human face to otherwise faceless legal work.When Napster is shut down and taken over, everyone is displeased, though no one is more hurt than Fanning. He put so much into the site, and when all his work is effectively taken away and invalidated, his spirit and morale suffers. Eventually, some suits from corporations change the very culture of their group. Where once they operated like a group of frat boys in a dorm room – albeit highly intelligent and dedicated ones – they are soon forced into soul-killing cubicles with bosses and a schedule. One by one, they all leave the project to pursue some other paths.
Interestingly, the downfall of Napster seems to have run slightly parallel to the decline of the recording industry as a whole. While the core staff members of Napster were leaving the project, the music industry’s decline began. Even though Napster had been dealt with, there were now hundreds of other web sites that allowed people to download pirated music. Even today, illegal downloading is commonplace. The film brings up the interesting bit of data that claims that the most ardent music fans who are merely sampling music in order to better inform themselves before making purchases. However, we do also see how huge record outlets like Tower Records eventually fell by the wayside, starved by the apathetic members of a digital generation.
The film only mildly explores the effects of Napster on the artists themselves. Certainly we see the stock footage of the superstars of the early 2000’s condemning the website, but we don’t see any of those same artists with their current opinions today. It would have been nice to see a modern interview of someone like Lars or Dr. Dre to see for sure if some of his opinions have changed. However, we do get to see a rather shocking success story for a band that was effectively launched by Napster. A band known as Dispatch was without a record deal, but thanks to the exposure from their fans who used Napster, they eventually became popular enough to play huge stadiums in 2011. This does provide a very interesting counterpoint to all the naysayers.
Downloaded is an informative, well-researched and thoughtful take on the journey of Napster. It may not be as objective as documentaries are meant to be, but it’s still a rather impressive directing debut for Alex Winter. If this what he can do on his first attempt, I’m very interested to see what else he can do in the future.