Few melodies are as universally relatable among Americans born between the late-1960s and the early 2000s as the theme song of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Which is why Memphis composer Jonathan Kirkscey could hardly believe his ears when Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville asked him to write the soundtrack to his latest documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, now in theaters. The movie examines the cultural phenomenon that was children's show host Fred Rogers, while Kirkscey's score creates an emotional layer that leaves many viewers weeping into their popcorn.
"I grew up watching Fred Rogers every day when I was a little kid," Kirkscey said. "I loved him to death."
Kirkscey said he watched many hours of the show intending to riff on the tinkling jazz accompaniment that cascades throughout every episode. Ultimately, he borrowed more of the instrumentation than the style, with special emphasis on the celeste and piano.
"Fred Rogers was human just like the rest of us," Kirkscey said. "He had a lot of doubts and insecurities about his ability to influence children in a positive way. One of the thing the music does is kind of explore those doubts and insecurities that are under the surface that maybe you wouldn't see were there if you were just watching Fred Rogers on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
Kirkscey is a long-time member of Memphis' classical music establishment, playing cello for ensembles such as the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the more contemporary Blueshift Ensemble. As a multi-instrumentalist, he also occasionally performs with bands.
As a composer, however, he works in a range of styles. One of his recent Memphis projects was an album called Duets for Mellotron, with collaborator Robby Grant.
His career as a film composer got a massive boost in 2015 when his friend, the filmmaker and writer Robert Gordon, tapped him to compose the music for the documentary Best of Enemies, which won an Emmy Award last year. The critical acclaim resulted in Kirkscey getting a Hollywood agent.
Morgan Neville, co-director of Best of Enemies, sought Kirkscey to work on Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a job that has already led to additional film projects.
In some ways, Kirkscey has been on a path to film composition since he was a kid.
"When I was a little kid, my family owned a small, one screen movie theater in Collierville," he said. "So our parents were working at the movie theater and we were at the movie theater all the time. It was absolute heaven for a little kid."
Especially with all those epic soundtracks of the late 70s and 80s, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchizes that made John Williams a household name. While Kirkscey has an abiding love for those great symphonic scores, his job often means using just a few instruments to make the same impact. After all, recording sessions are at his home, and he plays most of his own music on real instruments.
During one scene in the film, Kirkscey creates a theme for Mr. Rogers' puppet King Friday XIII, using a Mellotron flute sound to denote a sense of unease.
"King Friday is talking about how he wants to build a wall to keep his neighbors out," said Kirkscey of the episode that originally aired more than 40 years ago. "And the citizens of the town are trying to convince him they should be focusing on loving other people rather than trying to keep them out."
Kirkscey says he works fast putting music to images.
"It's an instant inspiration and it also causes me to go in different directions musically than I ever would on my own."
The power of combining pictures and music wasn't lost on Mr. Rogers. He could use them to entertain. But ultimately, he used them to guide generations of children to the "good feeling" of being alive.