Downloaded: SXSW Review

SXSW Napster Downloaded - H 2013
Courtesy of Trouper Productions

SXSW Napster Downloaded - H 2013

Audiences will be tantalized by this fascinating but frustratingly incomplete doc about the history of Napster.

Director Alex Winter's documentary recalls the groundbreaking launch of Napster and the legal battles that sank the company.

Before Facebook and Twitter and iTunes, there was Napster, but in the high-speed world of internet technology, a company that soared and crashed more than a decade ago must seem to belong to ancient history.  Director Alex Winter, who once co-starred in the Bill and Ted movies before heading to the other side of the camera, retrieves that history in his compelling documentary, Downloaded, which receives its world premiere at SXSW.  Younger audiences will respond to this intriguing tale, and a savvy small distributor might be able to market it effectively as a companion piece to the award-winning drama, The Social Network.

VIDEO: Sean Parker Talks About the Rise of Napster in Trailer for 'Downloaded' Documentary

Like David Fincher’s excellent film about the genesis of Facebook, Downloaded focuses on two teenage friends, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, who came up with a groundbreaking internet start-up while they were in college, dropped out and moved to northern California to launch their company.  Before long, however, their dream ended in soured friendships and legal battles.  At the height of its success, Napster had more than 50 million followers, but it filed for bankruptcy and disappeared just two years later, after the company lost court battles initiated by record companies and musicians who argued that these kids were ripping them off by offering free downloads of virtually every recording in existence.

Of course the real loser in this story was the record industry, which never really recovered from the revolutionary change in how young people listen to music.  Other companies soon began to offer the same services as Napster with a little more careful legal vetting.  The story that Winters tells is full of high drama and startling irony.  The lawsuit that sank Napster was triggered by two musical groups that would seem to be the essence of the anti-Establishment ethos—Metallica and Dr. Dre.  In recounting this juicy history, Winter brings a lot of people on camera—not just the principals at Napster, but many top record executives and musicians as well as the attorneys who argued the case.  The film juxtaposes present-day interviews with Fanning and Parker and the interviews they gave in the late 1990s when they were still teenagers.

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Despite the fascination of the subject matter and the skill of the filmmaking, there are some disappointing gaps in the movie.  One longs for a deeper psychological understanding of Fanning and Parker, but perhaps that requires the sharp dramatic writing that Aaron Sorkin brought to his portrait of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.  In addition, Downloaded never really provides a larger context for the consideration of copyright infringement in the arts.  One ethics professor tries to raise the question, but the film fails to probe very deeply into these issues of whether art should belong to the artists or to the public that consumes the work.  Considering that some of these larger questions remain unanswered, the film is probably at least ten minutes too long.  Tighter editing would help this mesmerizing story reach the audience that it deserves.

Venue:  SXSW Film Festival.

Production:  VHI, Trouper Productions.

Director:  Alex Winter.

Producers:  Alex Winter, Maggie Malina.

Executive producers:  Brad Abramson, Warren Cohen.

Director of photography:  Anghel Decca.

Music:  DJ Spooky.

Editor:  Jacob Craycroft.

No rating, 106 minutes.