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Nashville Film Festival: Butterfly in the Sky

If you were a child of the ’80s and ’90s, chances are you watched the children’s television program Reading Rainbow and it had a profound effect on you. I was a PBS kid who really took to LeVar Burton’s gentle and inviting demeanor and seeing real kids like myself get excited about books. This influence and my natural curiosity sent me a lifelong journey of reading and loving books. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask any Reading Rainbow kid and they’ll tell you the same: LeVar Burton made books cool and interesting.

“Anybody who worked with us and said oh, it’s just a kids show, never worked with us again.”

Directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb and produced by Bryan Storkel, Butterfly in the Sky chronicles the extraordinary story behind Reading Rainbow, the figures who made it happen and its profound effect on the children who watched the show. The documentary also serves as a celebration for all the incredible work Burton and the production team, who were all interviewed for the film, put into Reading Rainbow.

The show premiered July 11, 1983 but production began as early as 1981. It was a hard sell to get a show about reading on the air and to convince book publishers that they should want their books on the program. While it took a couple of years for the show off the ground, once it did it really started having a profound effect. The show had a solid concept and structure that just made it work: a friendly host, an earworm of a theme song, a memorable catchphrase, book reviews by real kids, readings by celebrity guests, songs and documentary style segments that put the featured book into context. LeVar Burton turned out to be the perfect host. Kids watching felt like he was speaking directly to them. Burton insisted on authenticity, always preferring to be true to himself even when the producers didn’t agree with what he was doing, and this really made the show work. 

Butterfly in the Sky is in the same vein as recent documentaries on PBS kids shows including Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) and Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (2021), both of which are excellent in their own right. Butterfly in the Sky is relentlessly positive, even when the show’s many adversities are discussed (it also completely skips the tumultuous life of the brand after it went off the air in 2006). This film serves up a heaping dose of nostalgia while also enlightening viewers on the history and importance of this landmark television program.

Butterfly in the Sky was part of the 2022 Nashville Film Festival.

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