While much American television looks dated with age, “All in the Family” and many other progressive sitcoms created by Norman Lear only seem more daring. Throughout the seventies, the restless producer cranked out a series of programs filled with racial and sexual politics heretofore unseen in the medium. Generations reared on such shows sing Lear’s praises for advancing today’s cultural standards, and many of them surface alongside Lear himself in the appreciative documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.”
While hardy a deep reading of Lear’s career, this brisk survey produced for PBS’ American Masters series from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady is an apt celebration of Lear’s continuing impact, as well as the 92-year-old’s resilience to this day.
A far cry from their audacious non-fiction efforts “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia,” the filmmakers’ more straightforward approach here focuses on Lear’s professional trajectory. Taking cues from his stories and the input from former colleagues and friends, the movie works best when surveying the most impactful moments of Lear’s work. Sitting against a black background watching clips from many of his creations, Lear remains a keen observer of his own ability to inject leftist politics into popular culture.
The chief stylistic devices used to bring his experiences to life are a different story. Marred by a hagiographic tone — hordes of talking heads talk up Lear’s genius throughout — “Just Another Version of You” also suffers from the use of a wandering child actor used to represent the lingering memories of his childhood. Of course, Lear’s shows remain so compelling that any cutaway from them automatically lessens the experience.
That’s not to say that “Just Another Version of You” lacks a certain psychological depth. Probing Lear’s frustrations over his conservative-minded father, “Just Another Version of You” makes it clear that the iconic “All in the Family” bigot Archie Bunker culled from real life, while Lear’s first wife inspired some elements of Bunker’s wife. Lear’s battles with the network are mostly glossed over, though he alludes to behind-the-scenes clashes surrounding the famous abortion episode of “Maude.” Ewing and Grady effectively show the anti-establishment ripple effect of his achievements with recordings of Richard Nixon condemning the show as a communist conspiracy, and Lear’s shift away from entertainment to pure activism in the eighties shows the extent to which his ideology transcended the boundaries of the commercial industry.
Unfortunately, these moments are offset by testimonials from former colleagues and fans, ranging from George Clooney to Rob Reiner, whose father Carl sits down with Lear and Mel Brooks for a meandering chat about the old days of show business. These moments amount to little more than hagiographic tributes that would live best as bonus features on box sets of Lear’s creations.
The adulation is validated by numerous clips that prove Lear’s brilliance at injecting radical social commentary into his shows. But they also raise questions about the thornier details left off the table. The only hint of genuine conflict arises with tales from the production of “Good Times,” an ostensibly progressive show about black America that nevertheless led to clashes with its uncertain cast. Yet even here, Lear gets the last word, and it’s hard to discern the moment at which his ability to pull off ambitious storytelling hit a wall.
As a pure encapsulation of Lear’s appeal, however, “Just Another Version of You” rarely goes wrong. The filmmakers capture a number of charming and tender moments, from Russell Simmons cracking up at the comic timing of a racial slur on “The Jeffersons” to Lear watching the finale of a scene between Bunker and his son, slowly tearing up.
The producer’s playful demeanor never fails to delight. He confesses an oft-repeated touching story from his youth was completely fabricated and jokes with his current wife (with whom he fathered twins in his late sixties) about nonagenarian sex. As a colorful personality seemingly incapable of slowing down, Lear makes a movie about his life worth watching simply by existing in front of the camera alongside his legacy. Whenever “Just Another Version of You” cedes control to his programs, it makes a pretty good case for their lasting power.
“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking theatrical distribution.