‘Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You’: Sundance Review

Omar Mullick/Courtesy of Sundance
A tricky approach ends up doing the film a disservice.

Norman Lear, the legendary TV producer who created 'All in the Family' among others, is feted in this bio-documentary, with appearances from Amy Poehler, George Clooney and Jon Stewart.

At one point in the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, producer Philip Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond) claims that the history of television can be divided into two periods: “Before Norman and After Norman,” so important is the contribution of producer Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and many other legendary series. Rosenthal might very well be right, but unfortunately directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary simply asserts rather than argues that case. Sure, it is ineluctably entertaining, thanks to its still-spry 93-year-old star-subject, and well-chosen clips from his many classic sitcoms, along with cameos from Lear fans Amy Poehler, George Clooney, and Jon Stewart, among others. But over the long haul, the film feels a little too eulogistic, too reliant on hyperbole and too in love with its own gimmicks to make it more than just a serviceable crowd-pleaser.

Scheduled to air on PBS’s American Masters showcase later this year, Just Another Version of You feels ultimately like 90 minutes about American television, for American television. However much Norman Lear may be a household name in the United States, this documentary about him is intrinsically a less exportable property than What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus’ Netflix-financed documentary, which, like this, opened Sundance last year and went on to have a theatrical life abroad.

That said, Just Another Version will feature prominently in the national conversation when it airs, especially in the social media, given Lear’s enduring public reputation not just as an artist and impresario, but also as a champion of liberal values and folk hero for the left. Part of that conversation will hopefully engage with how the film captures a time when television was a very different creature than it is today, when the three networks were practically the only game in town, and an episode of Maude that dealt with abortion could pull in 63 million viewers for a single airing. It’s figures like that which drive home just how much power Lear wielded in his heyday and just how much the landscape has changed since then.

Different filmmakers might have chosen to muse on these seismic, macroeconomic shifts more, but Ewing and Grady, who co-directed the justly admired Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, and DETROPIA together, have opted for a more personal, intimate look at their subject which pays its own pleasurable dividends. Instead of serving up just the usual chronological clip reel of career highlights, the directors have added in a meta layer by having the camera watch Lear himself as he watches excerpts from his work, for example the famous All in the Family episode where a woman gives birth in an elevator — or a climactic, still deeply powerful scene from the aforementioned abortion storyline in Maude which moves its creator to tears of pride in his work as well as empathy for the characters’ pain.

Having a young actor (Kalin Nigel Cooke) playing a nine-year-old version of Lear throughout, right down to the trademark white pork-pie hat, is a less effective device. It’s a literalization of that already hackneyed "the child is father to the man" notion, and just in case slower viewers haven’t worked it out, the film match cuts the 93-year-old and the nine-year-old walking through the set for several long seconds just to jam it home. Laudable though it might be to see the film trying to take aesthetic risks, the gimmickry distracts more than it enhances. Why should we want to see more of Cooke mooning about the set with projections trailing across him when there’s potentially more fascinating footage of Lear hanging out with his besties, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner?

Indeed, the film rushes over certain phases of Lear’s career and biography with such speed you can’t help wondering if it’s trying to divert the viewer’s attention from areas that might be less flattering to its subject, like a magician using distraction. So, for example, a disproportionate chunk of time is spent examining young Norman’s reaction to hearing an anti-Semitic priest’s ravings on the radio, but the whole of the 1960s go by in seconds’ long montage. It’s noted that there were heated arguments on the set of Good Times between Lear and his African-American cast about the scripts’ representation of black lives, but very little in the way of specifics.

Then, towards the end of the film, Lear confesses that an anecdote he used to tell all the time on chat shows about his grandfather writing to America’s presidents on a regular basis was all a lie. It was someone else’s grandfather who did that. But as disarming as it is to hear someone come clean about a lifelong lie, it has the more significant effect of casting everything he’s said previously into doubt. It’s a very odd maneuver, but perhaps a fitting one for a film about a man who introduced a moral complexity into that most conservative of modern art forms, the TV sitcom.

Production companies: A Loki Films, Jonathan D. Lewis, American Masters Pictures production
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady
Producers: Suzanne Hillinger, Brent Miller
Executive producer: Michael Kantor
Director of photography: Ronan Killeen
Editors: J.D. Marlow, Enat Sidi
Composer: Kris Bowers
Sales: Submarine
No rating, 90 minutes