Downloaded is a great documentary for many reasons. The greatest of these might be its effortless and uncanny ability to throw into stark relief just how massively the world of computers and the Internet has radically changed in just a few short years. This offering from director Alex Winter takes a look at the little file-sharing community that started it all, Napster, and follows the rise and fall of a concept that indelibly changed the entire world forever.
Though slightly long and running with the standard "talking heads" mode of documentation, Downloaded is an informative and comprehensive look at the conception and implementation of Napster, the world's first mp3 file sharing network. Beginning as a mere gleam in the eye of engineer Shawn Fanning, and gestating in an IRC group of like-minded computer wizards, Napster eventually morphed into the recording industry's greatest nightmare.
Winter's interviews, most with the architects of the community themselves, document in painstaking detail just how riveting and unique the very idea of sharing music through a decentralized network was back in the late 90s. The story of several close friends, most of who had never met in person, turned the seeds of the idea into a reality is as inspiring as it is entertaining.
This emphasis on the power of dedication to creativity runs throughout the entirety of Downloaded, and seamless editing allow the viewer to see the clear through line from those early days of sharing mp3s to our current climate of constant connectivity, user-supported communities, and massive-scaled independently created and maintained sources for art, news, business, fundraising, politics, and anything else the inquiring mind might desire.
Archival footage of those now dinosaur-seeming days reminds of just how fringe and scary a place the Internet was just a few years ago. It seems ludicrous even now to recall a time when a constant online presence and a tailor-made user experience wasn't the norm, but Downloaded paints a vivid picture of those days when nearly all content and media was filtered through gatekeeper channels that were beyond the reach and understanding of the average consumer.
It's no small feat that Winter is extremely objective and professional in his depiction of the reaction of the recording industry and recording artists, though somewhat predictably, the Napster naysayers do end up looking like backwards-thinking fools while the wunderkinds seem like prophets for knowing that eventually, this was the way we would all live: in a world where information and access has become the world's most heavily traded commodity.
Most fascinating is the bulky middle section of the documentary when Fanning and company describe the ensuing legal challenge and locked-in battle with the recording industry. The debate is so far removed from the current conversation these days that it's easy to forget just how knock-down and drag-out a fight it was, and the significance of that moment in history, when old guard thinking became overrun by the unstoppable tide of intellectual progress, can't be overstated.
On the flip side, the one thing Downloaded is lacking is an alternative interpretation of the fallout of the digital age, though perhaps this conversation is more suited to a different film entirely. Though the old system was undoubtedly broken and the shots called by industry big wigs woefully out of touch or unconcerned with what the consuming public wanted from them, the new system has done away with gatekeepers entirely, and the unregulated, wild west pitch of the Internet in its current state has had its own kind of cultural fallout (unlimited access has led to certain fields being devalued, for example).
Still, if we view Winter's film as the introduction to the age we are currently living in, there's little to criticize. Even the more complex and complicated explanations of Napster's inner workings and the legal ramifications of court decisions in the ensuing firefight are presented in ways that are easily palatable to the average moviegoer. Even the least computer literate audience member will find little to be confused about.
While Downloaded does run a bit long, it can be forgiven for providing such a rich and complete history of the little start-up that could, a company that, in the wake of movies like The Social Network, perhaps doesn't get enough credit for pushing common sensibility into the world of untapped possibility that it currently occupies.
Review originally published during SXSW in March 2013. Downloaded opens in limited theatrical release in the U.S. on Friday, June 21. Visit the official Facebook page for more information.