Documentary look at the Napster saga, the tale of bright cyber-heads Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker dreaming up a file-sharing online service that brought down the wrath of rock stars and record companies. Director Alex Winter clearly sympathizes with the revolutionaries in this case, and the film has a romantic air of What Might Have Been.
It’s weird enough that Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich found themselves across a table in a congressional hearing in 2001. The amazing thing is that the conservative politico proved hipper than the headbanging rock star. That surreal moment came in 2001, in the middle of the brief initial heyday of Napster, the online music-sharing service that mightily scared record companies and music artists alike. If you weren’t paying attention to details during the Napster affair, “Downloaded” is here to get some of the record straight.
And it’s true: Orrin Hatch really did seem to grasp the positive aspects of Napster, or at least he didn’t have a knee-jerk reaction against it. Nobody else chronicled in “Downloaded” appears neutral on the subject, which makes it a prime candidate for an argumentative documentary. Napster’s saga also carries an air of What Might Have Been, which lends appeal to something otherwise rooted in writing code and computer language. Director Alex Winter sees the romance in this grand failure, and seems more taken with the Napster-as-subversive-force-for-freedom narrative than with the complaints of the artists (Dr. Dre and Metallica were the most prominent opponents of Napster) who didn’t dig their music being passed around for free. That debate is a legitimately interesting one, and it isn’t just the Millennials that saw the exciting possibilities in online sharing.
At that 2001 hearing, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn laconically notes that his record-company contracts brought him no royalties despite the band’s great success, but that file-sharing was beginning to bring in some actual recompense.
Or, as Jon Stewart put it on the “Daily Show,” assessing the resumption of the proper order of things after Napster’s original design was struck down in the courts: “It’s the record companies who hold the patent on cheating musicians out of their money.”
The story also has its share of characters, including Napster founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker (perhaps you recall the latter in the form of Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network“). Winter likes these guys, and while the movie doesn’t try to give them the exalted status pop culture bestows upon His Holiness Steve Jobs, it doesn’t push them much, either. By the way, Alex Winter is the same dude who time-traveled with Keanu Reeves in the “Bill & Ted” movies; he’s been mostly directing since then. The obvious question is whether he’d approve of his movie being shared for free across the Internet. If not, rest assured Metallica has his back.