Director: Alex Winter
Cast: Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker, Don Lenner, Hilary Rosen, Henry Rollins, Billy Corgan, Lars Ulrich, Trent Reznor
VH1 Rock Docs
Not Rated | 106 Minutes
Release Date: March 10th, 2013 (SXSW)
Directed by Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Freaked), Downloaded chronicles the evolution of digital media, focusing primarily on the rise and fall of the pioneering peer-to-peer file sharing Internet service Napster.
Featuring exclusive interviews with Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, software developers, musicians, and the music industry elite, Downloaded explores the controversial file sharing software and follows Napster’s rise in 1998, through the gauntlet of copyright infringement lawsuits, to its acquisition by Rhapsody in 2011.
Some of those interviewed for Winter’s documentary include Henry Rollins, Billy Corgan, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, former Sony Music Chairman Don Lenner, former CEO of the RIAA Hilary Rosen, Beastie Boys’ Mike D, and Noel Gallagher of Oasis.
Although there were already networks that facilitated the distribution of files across the Internet, such as IRC, Hotline, and USENET, Napster specialized in MP3 files, a user-friendly interface, and lightning-fast search speeds. At its peak, Napster had about 80 million registered users and revolutionized the music industry for better or for worse.
As someone who was in high school and college during the height of Napster’s popularity, I certainly remember sitting in my bedroom downloading thousands of individual MP3s and creating customized playlists in Winamp, downloading skins for the then state-of-the art media player.
Napster informed the design of iTunes more than any other piece of software – Apple’s digital music store and media player was born out of a need to necessitate users with the kind of interface they had grown accustomed to, while also paying artists and obeying copyright laws.
Winter’s film takes you back to the days of the new millennium – the awful fashions, the god-awful music – N*Sync, Spice Girls, Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit – and the downfall of retail music chains like Tower Records.
For those who were caught up in the frenzy of illegally downloading free music, Downloaded is a nostalgic trip to the early 2000s, where musicians were split over the benefits of digital media and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich stormed the front steps of Napster headquarters with a list of names of kids across the country who were stealing money from him.
In many ways, Downloaded feels like a prequel to David Fincher’s The Social Network. It sets up the major players like Sean Parker (portrayed by Justin Timberlake in Fincher’s film), whose direct involvement with Napster would lead to becoming President of Facebook before becoming a major investor in Spotify, the popular commercial music service that provides DRM-protected content.
In 2002, Alex Winter met with Shawn Fanning about writing a narrative feature about Napster (which would have been The Social Network 1.0). Ten years after Winter first discussed making a movie with Fanning and Parker, he had turned the narrative into a documentary, wrapping up final interviews and last-minute footage at 2012’s South by Southwest Interactive Conference.
Winter recently premiered Downloaded at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival where it joined other impressive music documentaries like Sound City and Muscle Shoals. Downloaded, which is part of VH1’s Rock Docs series, is an informative look at the Wild West days of file sharing and the kind of rebellious “youth revolt” that has become common-place in the digital arena.
From Napster to Wiki-Leaks and Occupy Wall Street, Downloaded captures the essence of a generation who gave the middle finger to corporations and gatekeepers while simultaneously forging a new path for future generations of music lovers and file sharers. While it isn’t a stylish, technical masterpiece, Downloaded succeeds in informing its audience and giving the viewer a behind-the-scenes look at the dawn of Web 2.0.
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