Movie Review: DOWNLOADED Educates As Much As It Entertains

Alex Winter's Napster documentary sheds light on a historical moment.

Downloaded may present itself as a documentary about Napster, but it's really a look at a historical cultural moment in which youth culture caught traditional gatekeepers off guard and forever changed the way music was consumed and distributed. Had Napster never happened, the documentary would be about some different company but would more or less remain otherwise unchanged.

There are so many angles and opposing viewpoints to the debate about Internet piracy that it takes a little time to resign yourself to Downloaded's lack of sides. Alex Winter's documentary on the rise and fall of Napster does everything it can to tell that story without editorializing. While it's impossible to achieve such a goal, Downloaded makes a valiant effort to stick purely to educating.

For some, however, a lot of the information presented in Downloaded may already be well-sifted news. Its investigation covers a great amount of ground but rarely delves deep enough to offer much new data for people who followed all this news as it happened. Instead, Downloaded offers an opportunity to hear from the people involved from a place far removed from emotional reactions, which allows for enough perspective and hindsight that no one comes off as a villain. Personalities on both sides of the argument are whitewashed a bit, and there aren't nearly enough spokespeople representing the music industry, but most of the views espoused in the film have merit. And those who screwed up have the guts to admit their mistakes, which is refreshing. Stock footage of Lars Ulrich is unflattering, but nearly all footage of Lars Ulrich fails to compliment the guy. And even if he sounded like a horrible whiner at the time, it's not like he was totally wrong either.

Not only do the interview subjects in Downloaded have a healthy distance from the peak of Napster's stranglehold on the music industry, but so do we. While piracy is still a problem, now with all types of media, file sharing is not so widespread and "innocent" as it once felt. To many of us, the idea of going hog wild downloading whatever you want without consequence is almost as crazy a notion as buying stacks of brand new CDs from a Sam Goody.

This means there is also a mild fun nostalgia at play in Downloaded for those of us who witnessed this revolution first-hand (I didn't use Napster, but I was definitely an Audiogalaxy guy for a while). Some of the rhetoric on display might be a bit much (one guy refers to the ordeal as "culture's Vietnam," which fits in a way but probably crosses the hyperbole line regardless). But it's undeniable that the MP3 movement was huge enough that nearly everyone took part in it without considering the consequences. This was definitely a moment in time worth documenting both as a good and bad thing, but mostly as a massively unprecedented event. Downloaded nails that aspect.

Because of its modest scope, Downloaded spends a lot of time on how the old music industry dealt poorly with a change they did not anticipate but never tells us about how this conflict resolved itself, or if it even has. Spotify receives mention, but even that is still a controversial answer to the problem of monetizing music in the digital age.

Then again, Downloaded seems satisfied with delivering facts rather than offering answers to the questions these facts raise. The Napster story may now be over, but the culture it introduced is just as morally confusing as ever. It will take another documentary, probably released decades from now, to sort out the wrongs of today. That's not this film's aim.