DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”

(Image courtesy of Music Box Films)

“NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU” — 4 STARS

The adjectives “titan” and “humble” are not commonly found together. Famed television producer Norman Lear is an iconoclast in every way. His successful shows and the waves they created are forever chiseled into that industry. Away from the his seat as a creative czar, the man remained a hard-working and vigilant self-made man of activism and integrity. In his 90s, Lear has crossed unimaginable measures of impact and history. The new documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” stylishly chronicles his vast contributions.

Growing up as a New Haven, Connecticut Jewish boy to parents of Ukrainian and Russian ancestry, Norman Lear’s sense of involvement and purpose came early. He dropped out of college to join the war effort after Pearl Harbor, serving 52 missions as a radio operator and gunner on B-17 bombers. After World War II, Norman landed a career in publicity, beginning his long ties to Hollywood. By 1959, he created his first television show, “The Deputy” with Henry Fonda.

Climbing the industry ladder with work in film and television, CBS picked up his “All in the Family” in 1971 and the rest is history for the king of satirical comedy. Critical regard and ratings success became a Midas Touch across future shows “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Good Times.” At its peak, Lear’s house of hits comprised six of the top ten shows on all of television.

The number of careers he launched on-screen or inspired off-screen in the audience over his decades is nearly infinite, and many arrive in this documentary to bow before the master. When a moved Jon Stewart meets Lear before an appearance on his Comedy Central show with an embrace and the pronounced compliment of “you raised me,” you feel Lear’s historic power. When reunited at a get-together with fellow “Greatest Generation” creators Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, the magic in the room emanating from the triumvirate is off the charts.

“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is an interlaced cradle-to-grave story without the grave. Co-director Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s open access to Lear elevates this film. Lear is introduced to “My Blue Heaven,” his favorite song, and casts a shadow in his ever-present brimmed hats. In impeccable health and spry as ever at 94 years old, Norman Lear tells much of his own story without a hint of gallows humor while concurrently recording the audio version of his printed memoirs. The filmmakers merge created character vignettes of a symbolic boy before he became the man to his testimonies.

The filmmakers pick his brain on what inspired his shows, their characters, their messages, and his constant progressive activism in work and in life. Lear and special guests revisit famed clips screened in front of him, where you witness both the profound personal pride and deeply resonating feelings tied together in those creations that still affect him to this day. Those moments cement that aforementioned humility that deserves to be attached to the titan.

Focusing primarily on his television work, archival footage of Lear behind-the-scenes with his casts and fellow creators is impeccable. You could double this documentary’s length to tackle Normal Lear’s political activism, including his public fight against the “Moral Majority” in the 1980s. That stands as the only undeveloped or uncelebrated tangent in this more-than-manageable and completed piece. What is present is fascinating and compelling thanks to the man himself at the forefront. “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is a must-see for television lovers who remember true creativity that arrived at the tip of Lear’s spear.

LESSON #1: EVERY CREATION IS A REFLECTION OF ITS CREATOR IN SOME SHAPE OR FORM — The documentary’s subtitle of “Just Another Version of You” relates to and echoes Lear’s spoken view of the creative process. Personal experiences always inflect and morph into elements and shades within characters and themes. Every creator does it, from the most twisted like Stephen King to the most romantic like Shakespeare. You don’t create something emotionally dense or challenging without carrying such capacity of equal emotions. That’s what makes these creative works outlets as much as expressions.

LESSON #2: PROGRESSIVE MESSAGES WHEN PROGRESS WAS NEEDED — Lear’s vigilance couldn’t have come at a better time to a nation rocked by the Civil Rights Movement and the unpopular Vietnam War. Each of his watershed hits challenged a social issue: “All in the Family” and prejudice, “Maude” and feminism, “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” and racial stereotypes.

LESSON #3: PROCESSING COMPLEX THOUGHTS THROUGH COMEDY — Putting those difficult topics on television for American audience was progressive, but the delivery of it through humor was revolutionary and transcendental. High or low, mocking or cringing, targeted or self-deprecating, laughing, in its many forms and outlets, is as disarming as it is healing. Lear brought those doses of medicine to his shows and their themes as few have since in the industry.

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