Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, a documentary about the prolific television producer/writer and activist behind such iconic shows as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, is a celebratory and insightful depiction of its subject matter. Though timely and emotional at times, it never fully commits or attempts to explore deeper implications of race relations the way its subject matter so famously challenged on television.
Instead, it opts for a more nostalgic look at television and Lear’s life while showing brief clips of scintillating race discussions culled from several of his more famous shows, accomplishing very little in the way of making a statement on the current racial dichotomy within our country.
Nevertheless, what the doc accomplishes expertly is an exploration of Lear’s life as a producer/writer and the beginning of his propensity for social and political activism. We go deep behind Lear’s past as directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady paint a portrait of Lear’s psyche, illustrating his life experiences as they shape his later ideology and craft. From modest beginnings, serving in World War II (owing to feelings of Jewish guilt), to his early television work on such programs like The Colgate Comedy Hour, the film traverses through Lear’s personal and social struggles.
Lear’s Jewish heritage made him more attuned and sensitive to the plight of minorities, hence the film’s title. His egalitarian worldview would lead, as shown here, to his devout advocacy for the First Amendment, his social and political views that ran counter to the “moral majority” movement of the 80s, and his diverse television programs throughout the 1970s.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You isn’t without its powerful moments. Lear reflects on his ex-wife Frances, a devout feminist, and breaks down in a heartrending moment as he reads a letter she’d written at the dusk of their struggling relationship. Interviews range from Russell Simmons reflecting on The Jeffersons, sharing a jovial and authentic laugh while watching a clip from the show involving the N-word, to All in the Family co-star and future director Rob Reiner.
The film’s knack for nostalgia and adulation works for the celebrated icon and, despite its social shortcomings, whom I’m sure Lear would be proud of if the filmmakers aimed to do more than just a biographical documentary, the film ultimately works most effectively as a primer on Lear. The surprisingly spry 94-year-old is not only the centerpiece, but a crux for the filmmakers to focus on old age, with stars like Reiner and John Amos (Good Times) watching their younger selves projected on a wall, like a faded memory fully realized before their eyes. The filmmakers offer a slight window into the process of the documentary which blends the real with the cinematic, infused with an undeniable nostalgic sensibility.
Perhaps the best moment in Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You involves the trifecta of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Norman Lear reminiscing and crooning tunes in their old voices like young boys out on the town. That’s exactly how this film feels; like old souls gathering to celebrate the legacy of Norman Lear with admiration and respectability, recalling the glory days of the past and reveling in lost youth. It doesn’t get better than this.