For those of us who grew up watching the 1970s TV comedies All in the Family and Maude, Norman Lear is a near-god. Lear co-created and produced those culture-shaking shows, along with the landmark African-American comedies Good Times and The Jeffersons. A proud lefty who walked away from TV to battle Jerry Falwell and the rising right wing, the 93-year-old is a legend with a zillion stories — so why is the new documentary about his life so unsatisfying?
Originally produced for PBS’s American Masters series, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You contains thrilling (if brief) backstage footage featuring Lear stars Bea Arthur, Esther Rolle, and Carroll O’Connor, as well as a powerful moment when Lear is overcome with emotion while watching O’Connor, as Archie Bunker, explain why he can’t think of his abusive father as being “wrong.” Lear, we’ve learned, has his own father issues — and it’s here that co-directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) most artfully connect their subject’s life to his work.
Sadly, they clutter the path to other such connections by placing Lear against a performance-art style theatrical setting that appears to have delighted Lear but sucks up precious screen time. There are unsettling oddities, too — a jocular reunion with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner feels stagy and false, and suggestions that Lear’s African-American family comedies were culturally problematic are raised, only to be tidily swept aside.
To his great credit, Lear admits to an astonishing lifelong public lie, a revelation that should be humiliating for him but isn’t. At his age, Norman Lear isn’t doing regret.
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
Music Box Films
Opens July 8, Film Society of Lincoln Center, IFC Center