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‘Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You’ (review)

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Produced by Brent Miller and Suzanne Hillinger
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Starring Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, George Clooney,
Jon Stewart, Valerie Bertinelli, Dabney Coleman,
Adrienne Barbeau, Amy Poehler,  Kim Fields,
Todd Bridges, John Amos, Bea Arthur, Marla Gibbs,
Louise Lasser, Phil Rosenthal, Bill Moyers,
Esther Rolle, Charlotte Rae, Hal Williams,
Jimmie Walker, Sally Struthers, Demond Wilson

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is the name of the engrossing new documentary about one of the legends of television.

The title is taken from a bumper sticker distillation of Lear’s humanistic philosophy (no, really – it’s a bumper sticker on his car).

Lear, best known for shepherding some of the most groundbreaking sitcoms in TV history, is given his just due here.

This is not a worshipful whitewash, but a warts and all look at a committed, moral man who’s still going strong in his nineties.

We learn about his difficult childhood with his criminal father, who was a strong inspiration for Archie Bunker (according to Lear, he would even tell his wife to “Stifle!” when he felt she was getting out of line).

Norman’s rotten relationship with his dad colored much of his outlook (and output); he even admits at one point that it probably still affects him to this day. And while one could argue he was a far, far better family man than his father was, it becomes clear that he didn’t spend nearly as much time with his wife and daughters as he did with his TV shows.

There are more than a few times throughout the doc when Lear becomes emotional, oft times wiping tears from his eyes. Moments like these have power, all the more because it is essentially a nonagenarian looking back upon his entire legacy, in his art, his life and his activism.

The segment on his activism is quite interesting, as Lear took on the Moral Majority and their hypocrisy, censorship and intolerance. Bill Moyers labels Lear “a true patriot”, a comment that usually causes bile to rise in my throat.  In Lear’s case, Moyers is absolutely correct.

The talking heads and behind-the-scenes segments are intercut with “reenactments” of Lear’s childhood, with a young actor portraying Lear as a boy.  This stuff is always hit-or-miss, but directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady pull it off.

Other “arty” devices, such as a cut from a seagull to a warplane, are a bit less effective (there IS an amusing match cut involving The Flying Nun, however).

The meat of the movie, of course, deals with Lear’s years in television.  This is the best stuff: his almost daily battles with Carroll O’Connor and Esther Rolle over content, his all-out war with the networks’ “program practices” (or, as Lear labels it, censorship), his decision to develop The Jeffersons after listening to complaints from African-Americans that blacks are always represented as poor, etc.

As with some other recent docs on entertainment bigwigs (De Palma, Altman, et al), one might wish more time had been spent on specific works or topics. I would have loved to have heard some stories about one of my favorite film comedies, Cold Turkey, for which Lear wrote the script. But the focus of the doc is where it should be: on his life, his TV legacy and his activism.

A satisfying, entertaining and very enlightening film, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is well worth your time if you have any interest in entertainment history, censorship, and, ah hell, history period.

Now, would someone PLEASE do a special edition Blu-ray of Cold Turkey while Lear is still alive??

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is now playing in limited release. 
For theaters, click HERE

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