Published Apr 24, 2013Like most actors or musicians turned documentarians, Alex Winter—the less triumphant Wyld Stallyn—doesn't exactly reinvent or even challenge the medium, assembling a chronological breakdown of Napster's glory days with standard talking head banality. It's a coherent work that assembles its facts competently and appropriately, starting from the beginning in am mIRC chat room where "napster" (Shawn Fanning), "Man0war" (Sean Parker), "no_carrier" (Jordan Ritter) and "Mars" (Ali Aydar) shared warez and hacker techniques.
From there, first-person interviews with the Napster founders—primarily the lead, Shawn Fanning—detail the development of freeware and technological hurdles involved in sharing music with rudimentary bandwidth back in the '90s when the internet was still a newfangled contraption (despite existing in Universities for quite some time prior).
Amidst this exceedingly expository journey, which discusses the introduction of the file sharing service and the subsequent cultural boom of activity, Winter interjects archived interviews with College students admitting to having thousands of mp3s on their computer, as well as initial reactions from musicians—Dr. Dre, The Spice Girls, Trent Reznor, etc.—on the subject. The tone is light-hearted, playing mostly off the pros of the free service—such as increased exposure to rare and live recordings and greater flexibility with testing a product before purchase—and the youthful naivety and enthusiasm of the boys who ostensibly built a smelly, tightly confined frat house to operate their business venture from.
But while record executives discuss their preliminary reactions to copyright infringement issues and Lars Ulrich shows up at Napster headquarters with boxes and boxes of usernames he wants blocked from sharing files, the overly imbalanced perspective of Downloaded becomes clear. The executives are portrayed as greedy corporate cogs afraid of change and the music industry is typified as technologically ignorant mouth pieces.
Winter continually projects the image of innocence onto his subjects, doting on their age and lack of experience in relation to the marvel of technological change from LP's to cassettes to CD's to Mp3s. Their background in hacking into government sites and their awareness of the situation is glossed over by the notion that the entire industry simply didn't know how to create some sort of paid subscription service not entirely dissimilar to what iTunes does in the current marketplace.
It isn't necessarily a problematic approach to the subject but the glib treatment of different perspectives and over-reliance on cheap gags—Posh Spice staring at the camera blankly—doesn't help legitimize much of the argument.
Still, as an information piece and ersatz coming-of-age tale, Downloaded does capture an interesting moment in time, indirectly commenting on the cyclic social handling of rapid cultural change. As the Napster boys established a new mode of transporting content from the artist to the end user, an endless array of partially informed people spewed their opinions into the cultural lexicon without establishing any sort of expertise on the subject, which is something still going on, primarily on the internet.
If Winter's documentary were a little less flippant and superficial, it might have captured these themes and exploited their capacity to frame a narrative trajectory. But as it stands, Austin Chick's narrative feature, August is a far more profound look at the giant missed opportunity of the internet, having had the capability of completely changing the landscape of global commerce, giving power to the user rather than the existing conglomerate infrastructure. Instead, we use it to make bitchy comments and share pictures of our pets doing goofy things. (VH1)