Downloaded: Back to the Heyday of Napster


Runs Fri., July 5–Thurs., July 11 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 106 minutes.

It’s weird enough that Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich found themselves across a table in a 2001 congressional hearing. The amazing thing is that the conservative politico proved hipper than the headbanging rock star. That surreal moment came during the brief initial heyday of Napster, the online music-sharing service that mightily scared record companies and music artists alike. If you weren’t paying attention to details during the Napster affair, Downloaded is here to set some of the record straight.

And it’s true: Hatch really did seem to grasp the positive aspects of Napster, or at least he didn’t have a knee-jerk reaction against it. Nobody else chronicled in Downloaded appears neutral on the subject, which makes it a prime candidate for an argumentative documentary. Napster’s saga also carries an air of What Might Have Been, which lends appeal to something otherwise rooted in writing code and computer language. Director Alex Winter sees the romance in this grand failure, and seems more taken with the Napster-as-subversive-force-for-freedom narrative than with the complaints of the artists who didn’t dig their music being passed around for free. (Dr. Dre and Metallica were among Napster’s most prominent opponents.)

That debate is a legitimately interesting one, and it isn’t only Millennials who saw the exciting possibilities of online file-sharing. At that 2001 hearing, Byrds founder Roger McGuinn laconically notes that his record-company contracts brought him no royalties despite the band’s great success, but that file-sharing was beginning to bring in some actual recompense. Or, as Jon Stewart put it on The Daily Show, after the courts put a stop to Napster and restored the status quo: “It’s the record companies who hold the patent on cheating musicians out of their money.”

The story also has its share of characters, including Napster founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker (perhaps you recall the latter in the form of Justin Timberlake in The Social Network). Winter likes these guys, and while the movie doesn’t try to give them the exalted status pop culture bestows upon His Holiness Steve Jobs, it doesn’t push them much, either. By the way, Winter is the dude who time-traveled with Keanu Reeves in the Bill & Ted movies; he’s mostly been directing since then. The obvious question is whether he’d approve of his movie being shared for free across the Internet. If not, rest assured Metallica has his back.

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