Directed by Alex Winter
Available on VOD
The crackle of a dial-up tone opens Downloaded, a documentary mainly about Napster, and that digital soundbite-its searching beeps answered with a prolonged scratching, a harsh note like a distorted bleating lamb, then static fuzz-is all it takes to boot up nostalgia in Generation Y. But the sheer amount of file-sharing software screenshots in this documentary will send that wistfulness into overdrive, perhaps precipitating disinterest in all but the most die-hard geek of the early '00s.
Writer/director Alex Winter (of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) develops a sharply contrasted tone to that of the aspersions-casting Social Network, which shares one of the same main characters: Sean Parker, who in The Social Network was memorialized by Justin Timberlake as coke-snorting and conniving, and is merely motormouthed and twitchy in Downloaded. And Parker's co-founding cohort, Shawn Fanning, is rendered in a starry-eyed way. Winter constructs a narrative around Fanning and the burden that fell on his shoulders during Napster's boom and drawn-out bust, supplementing that mainframe with recording-industry reps and early-middle-aged techies and somewhat bygone musicians. The resultant hour-and-40-minute product feels belabored.
Fanning, who conceived of Napster's MP3-centralizing mechanism in 1998, grew up in a rocky-ish home environment, moving around a lot, occasionally finding himself in foster care, though it's not explored in great depth. An uncle gave him a computer at some point and he found solace in chat rooms, where he encountered the comrades, including Parker, who would help him establish Napster. His personal story is the only one offered up, and Winter's sympathy for Fanning, who eventually had to shut down the revolutionary service he created, bleeds through in his direction. In one scene, Fanning is surrounded by former co-workers; one takes a joking pot shot at him ("It was all Shawn's fault") and keeps gabbing; the sound fades out and the camera zooms in and lingers on Fanning as he strokes his shaved head and stares into space, looking troubled. Poor guy.
One imagines the loss to be tragic, but you might not want to pay to watch these tech whizzes-most of whom have gotten involved in other successful web startups-luxuriate in Napster's downfall. Fear not: You can probably stream the movie for free online.