Downloaded begins similarly to how Napster took over the internet; messy, chaotic, and so fast it is hard to keep up.
If you are in your mid-twenties to mid-thirties there is a good chance that you have used the program Napster to download music files from the internet. Back in the late ‘90s Napster exploded rapidly in popularity beyond just college campuses, reaching roughly 50 million users at its peak sharing music files with each other. Although Napster was shut down by the music industry over a decade ago, Downloaded explains how significant it was in shaping the way we purchase music today, but more importantly, how it changed the way people use the internet.
Downloaded begins similarly to how Napster took over the internet; messy, chaotic, and so fast it is hard to keep up. Before the documentary spirals off into a whirlwind it begins with a brief prologue that details how Napster began using clever visuals that mimic the old-school chat rooms it was born in. From there it quickly jumps around to several areas including all the media hype at the height of Napster’s popularity, the upbringing of one of co-founders (Shawn Fanning), and a quick history lesson on how singles and albums got their popularity in the 1950’s. Eventually, the documentary begins to feel comfortable in its own skin, and tells the story of the rise and fall of Napster in a chronological order.
Like most successful technology, it is impossible to comprehend the significance of Napster unless you experienced what it was like without it. But it was important for more than just the obvious reasons. The first thing the documentary touches on is that the program was also a way for people to communicate by adding friends (users) using its chat rooms before social networks really took off. The other thing people tend to forget about Napster is that it not only provided a way to obtain the latest (sometimes even pre-released) music, but it also was a way to get rare import tracks, live recordings, and other material that was not commercially available for everyone.
Downloaded does not take a very balanced approach, showing its bias toward pro-Napster in almost every scene. While Napster may have been originally intended as a means to discover (or steal, depending on who you ask) music, it was mostly used as a method to get free music that you would normally have to pay for. Even after all of these years, the founders of the program still skirt around this issue as if they were speaking in front of a courtroom instead of a camera. This makes the whole experience less intimate and more as if they are still trying to convince naysayers of its legitimacy long after the fact.
With almost 30 minutes left of the documentary, it had already shown the fall of Napster and that all the additional investments to revive the company was pointless. Yet Downloaded just keeps the cameras rolling and shifts towards detailing the effects had on the music industry. Which leads to the fundamental issue of the documentary; is it the story of Napster, downloading in general, or the music industry? Although the title does not explicitly indicate it would have to be solely about Napster, 90% of the documentary revolves around it. Thus, Downloaded becomes unbalanced when it begins to focus more on the music industry and less on Napster. With a few tweaks it could easily be a documentary about the fall of the music industry and how it looked at Napster as the enemy instead of a potential friend.
Most people familiar with the story are not going to find very many hidden gems in Downloaded, but the documentary does serve as an enjoyable nostalgic recount of the Napster era for those who experienced it. However, this will be much more beneficial for those who know little to nothing about the history and have not experienced anything outside of iTunes for music delivery. So while Downloaded is an informative piece on how Napster revolutionized digital music, it does not go out of its way to investigate anything new. Shawn Fanning always looks as if he is holding something back, especially when the camera focuses in on him staring intensely at the ground, making it seem like the documentary is content with showing his state of inner turmoil without actually exploring it.