Evolving at lightning speed, the Internet has a way of making milliseconds seem like eons in retrospect. Thus it's hard to believe it was only a dozen years ago that Napster, the notoriously pioneering peer-to-peer file-sharing service that enabled tens of millions of people worldwide to download music for free, was forced by legal injunction to shut down its operation.
Of course, online piracy of copyrighted material, including movies, has remained plenty prevalent, certainly enough to occupy the White House as well as Internet service providers. Among the latest developments: Comcast, apparently mindful of the rise of video on demand, has reportedly begun pitching film and TV studios on the idea that illegal downloaders could soon be greeted with pop-up windows offering them the chance to pay for their video.
Thus, a customer caught illegally downloading "Downloaded" — a new documentary about the history of Napster that arguably endorses Internet piracy — could instead opt to get it from Vudu, iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.
Indeed, it's well worth the cost of a rental. Directed by Alex Winter (who played Bill opposite Keanu Reeves' Ted back in the day), "Downloaded" is stuffed with vintage '90s footage, some of it hilarious, as when the clueless hosts of the "Today" show in 1994 reckon with that then-new thing called the Internet. The film also includes a host of contemporary interviews — mostly with musicians and lawyers — that help sketch the story of Shawn Fanning, who at 19 started Napster out of his college dorm room and watched it change not just music culture, but culture in general.
Coming across as a good-natured, articulate geek, Fanning recalls the original concept for Napster as providing a "way to meet people through music." In other words, Napster is as much a seed of the social network phenomenon as it is a renegade precursor to iTunes. To young Fanning, sharing was caring.
Not that the recording industry or the government saw it that way. Far and away the richest material in "Downloaded" comes in footage of the late-'90s Senate hearings on Napster — which, with the perspective that time allows, now make clear how little of substance was resolved or even discussed. "Downloaded" may not convince you that copyright infringement is cool, but it's persuasive in arguing that Fanning, amid the industry's rush to judgment, never really had his day in court.
Also new to VOD
An even more ancient media technology than Napster, the dear-departed VHS gets its due in "Rewind This!" Josh Johnson's entertaining documentary examines the cultural impact of videotape and introduces a set of obsessive VHS collectors whose borderline inexplicable mania makes vinyl record fetishism look like investment banking. A lovably perverse ode to low-res, "Rewind This!" will be available on demand near the end of the month — in high definition, yet.
Rob Nelson is a National Society of Film Critics member whose reviews appear regularly in the trade magazine Variety.