Butterfly in the Sky – Tribeca 2022

LeVar Burton in Butterfly in the Sky. Photo credit: Tony Hardmon.

Butterfly in the Sky is a nostalgic documentary as the film takes viewers into the history behind the 26-year run of Reading Rainbow.

This is a series that inspired generations of people. Community even paid homage during an episode of the Dan Harmon series. It all goes back to Twila Liggett and the teacher went onto create the series. Liggett’s journey goes back to getting hired by a Nebraska educational network in 1980. At this time, she had been talking with WNED in Buffalo. Together, she would team up with Tony Buttino and the rest is history.

But in order to put this show on the air and encourage children to read, they needed to put a team together. They found a pair of producers in Larry Lancit and Cecily Truett Lancit. Larry would also direct. The Corporation of Public Broadcasting expressed an interest and asked them to make a pilot. In looking for a host, they were looking for a Mr. Rogers type. Liggett explains that they wanted a male host because more boys than girls have a problem with reading. Next thing you know, they found their host in LeVar Burton. Burton was a name actor at this time because of his appearance on Roots. Here’s what you might not know about LeVar Burton: his mom had been an English teacher before becoming a social worker. When you learn this, you just know in your gut that he’s the right host for Reading Rainbow.

There’s something in listening to Burton talk that reinforces their decision. He’s not a guy who talks down to the audience. It’s almost like he went to the Fred Rogers school of talking to children. Both Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Reading Rainbow are very different series but they both having teaching children in common. It’s as if he is bringing out his inner child in order to connect with children. But throughout his time hosting the series, he was also seeking acting roles. Change came slowly but he landed a role in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a blind engineer.

“Prior to Star Trek, there were no Black people in space,” says Whoopi Goldberg. “Not seeing any representation means we didn’t make it.”

Burton knew that he could not pass up this opportunity. Landing the series role also posed a question of whether he could continue at Reading Rainbow. He thought for sure that his time on the series was over. Burton didn’t want to leave and felt that there was more work to do. Ultimately, he would continue on as host. “The Bionic Bunny Show” took viewers behind the season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the end, he was truly able to make the best of both worlds. The series won an Emmy in 1990 for Outstanding Children’s Program. Furthermore, the sales of children’s books would increase if they were featured on the show.

Composer Steve Horelick discusses his process in creating the synthesized theme song for the series. The lyrics for the theme song would also inspire the documentary’s title. The theme song was one of the final pieces necessary before getting picked up in 1993. Trust me when I say that you’re going to get nostalgic the moment that it starts.

They bring on a number of celebrity narrators for publicity reasons. Executive producer Whoopi Goldberg had been a guest star once upon a time and discusses why she wanted to be on. Jill Gluckson, a producer, talks about the time she wanted to listen to James Earl Jones recording his lines. The voice of Darth Vader wanted to another day to prepare himself accordingly and came back the next day. It’s just one of many anecdotes and  I’ll get to more in a few.

Many people share anecdotes about the making of the series. One in particular is about the time they taped when a volcano was erupting. Another episode features Run DMC telling viewers rapping about reading. There’s also footage from his 1995 testimony for Public Broadcasting funding from Congress. The PBS budget was able to survive for the time being. Cut to a few years later and you have 9/11. It’s a time in history that cannot be ignored. Burton and company went to a school located near Ground Zero. In an interview, Burton discusses the resilience coming from the children. All good things, however, come to an end and that’s when the tears start flowing. There’s a moment with LeVar Burton and Mr. Rogers and now I’m crying.

What surprises me the most about this documentary is how they found all the book review children. A handful of them make appearances on screen. It’s an editor’s dream because they also had to find the original footage from their appearance on Reading Rainbow. Regardless, it is very impressive. More impressively is the amount of book review children that would follow into the industry. Alisa Reyes became a regular on All That and is still working today. Kenny Blank has a lengthy career in Hollywood (credited as Kenn Michael in the film). Galaxy Quest filmmaker Dean Parisot was one of the directors on Reading Rainbow!

The documentary is under 90 minutes but we learn the essential information. Butterfly in the Sky joins a host of nostalgic documentaries about children’s programming and there won’t be a dry by the end of the film. Recent years have given us documentaries about Fred Rogers and Sesame Street. This film is a strong Solzy Award contender for Best Documentary Feature. Any studio or streaming service that acquires Butterfly in the Sky has a hit film on their hands with a ready-made built-in audience.

DIRECTORS: Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb
FEATURING: LeVar Burton, Twila Liggett, Larry Lancit, Cecily Truett Lancit, Tony Buttino, Steve Horelick, Ed Wiseman, Ellen Schecter

Butterfly in the Sky holds its world premiere during the 2022 Tribeca Festival in the Movies Plus program. Grade: 4.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.