The trailblazing TV showrunner gets a lively tribute in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's technically imaginative doc.
With politics of representation in the U.S. entertainment industry currently under intense scrutiny, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” doesn’t feel quite like the comforting nostalgia trip one might expect. Instead, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s sprightly, brightly assembled celebration of the veteran showrunner holds up a mirror to contemporary American television, tacitly asking if it’s addressing issues of difference and prejudice as directly (and daringly) as Lear’s shows, including such 1970s staples as “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” did. Generally laudatory in its approach to its irresistible human subject — if Lear’s signature white hat remains immovably on his head, the film’s stays very much in hand — this appreciation is nonetheless most fascinating in a brief stretch where the political correctness of Lear’s work is called into question by black performers. Brassily entertaining as it is, “Just Another Version of You” could use a little more such bristle.
Kicking off Sundance’s Documentary Premieres program on a lively note, this PBS American Masters production will surely find its most receptive audience on, appropriately enough, the medium that made Lear great. (Or vice versa, as some of the film’s more ardent celebrity interviewees — George Clooney and Rob Reiner among them — might prefer to argue.) Given this pedigree, then, accomplished documakers Ewing and Grady (“Jesus Camp”) are to be commended for making a film that itself resists standard televisual presentation: There’s a warm, spotlit sheen even to its talking-heads footage, while J.D. Marlow and Enat Sidi’s playful editing nimbly divides Lear’s storied life into sliding personal and professional planes.
In the helmers’ most stylized move, Lear’s life is presented as a theater dressed with overlapping television screens; his 9-year-old self (played by Keaton Nigel Cooke) wanders this live collage of past, future and present, while the real-life Lear — still tack-sharp at 93 — looks on. Iridescently shot by Noah Baumbach’s current d.p. Sam Levy, with a lovely, skittering free-jazz score by Kris Bowers, these sequences seem more than coincidentally reminiscent of Alejandro G. Inarritu’s anatomy-of-an-actor “Birdman.” It’s not the most obvious choice of reference for a Lear study, though there are several ways to tease out the subtext: After a life spent creating characters, has Lear perhaps become one — or more than one — in his own memory?
In keeping with this impressionistic approach, Ewing and Grady eschew Wikipedia-style completism in their overview of Lear’s career: His television and film work (including an Oscar-nominated script for “Divorce American Style”) from the 1950s and 1960s is grazed through in a single blithe montage, while even the shows of his 1970s heyday are covered with varying degrees of detail. There’s a difference, after all, between output and legacy, particularly in a medium as freely accessible to the public as television: “Just Another Version of You” dwells less on Lear’s specific work in itself than on the implications of its eager absorption into mainstream American culture. “All in the Family” patriarch Archie Bunker’s satirized bigotry reflected a population still raw from the Civil Rights battle, still nervous around ideals of racial equality. Later, the newly fluid social hierarchy suggested by the upwardly mobile black family at the heart of “The Jeffersons” paved the way for such series as “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”
White, Jewish and vehemently liberal, Lear earned his place in network television history by placing racial discussion and black characters front and center for the first time on screen — though charges of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, while not the buzzwords they are in the current age of social-justice monitoring, were made even by his own collaborators. Ewing and Grady’s greatest archival find is a scorching interview with Esther Rolle, African-American star of the Lear-developed “Maude” spinoff “Good Times,” in which she lambasts the show’s none-too-bright breakout character JJ (with his “Dy-no-mite!” catchphrase) as “a way of putting us all down,” closing with a plea for “comedy without buffoonery.”
Disappointingly, given the generous candor of his interviews on other subjects, the filmmakers don’t press Lear on such grievances. It should be noted, meanwhile, that the doc’s other interviewees are mostly white: While a tongue-in-cheek poster captured on screen refers to Lear as a “Great Black Leader,” there’s little sense here of how the black community, of his generation or the next, viewed and continues to view his work. “You raised me,” Jon Stewart tells Lear at one point in the doc; it’d be interesting to know if, say, Shonda Rhimes — a showrunner as ubiquitous in this era as Lear was in his, and comparably influential in the depiction of black lives on screen — might say the same.
With that caveat in place, “Just Another Version of You” condenses a substantial amount of information and perspective into a crisp, concise 91 minutes. Lear’s second career as a vocal political activist, which saw him founding the left-wing People For the American Way group in response to the Christian right’s Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, offers material enough for a documentary of its own, while his knotty personal life is covered in flavorful fits and starts, from the formative trauma of parental abandonment at the age of nine to the joys of geriatric fatherhood. On pretty much any topic, he’s a witty, thoughtful and socially engaged storyteller: Ewing and Grady’s film plays chiefly to those, like Stewart, who grew up on Lear’s boundary-pushing, but any passing younger viewers — unfamiliar, even in this golden age of U.S. television, with anything that looks or sounds quite like “The Jeffersons” — may find their curiosity piqued.