Norman Lear Documentary

During a ceremony honoring legendary TV producer Norman Lear, comedian Amy Poehler says, “It’s hard to make people laugh, tackle big issues and get big ratings. That’s why no one does it anymore.” Indeed, in the relatively short history of television, no one has had as big of an impact on the medium as Norman Lear, the creator of classic shows such as All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude and more.

The documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You dives into the life and career of this man who changed TV forever with those shows, and it makes for a surprisingly touching, charming and intimate profile.

The Norman Lear documentary is slated to air on PBS as part of their American Masters showcase later this year, but it never feels like it’s made for television. This isn’t one of those docs that’s just packed with plain talking heads. Some real effort is made to be more than the typical interviews you see in documentaries.

Instead of interviews merely playing to the camera, we move around Lear as he watches some of his most iconic clips projected against a giant wall on a stage, reacting to them on camera, even coming to tears. The same is done with the likes of John Amos (Good Times) and Russell Simmons to great effect as well.

On the other hand, reenactments of portions of Norman Lear’s life featuring a young boy, complete with Lear’s trademark hat, feel like directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) trying a little too hard. These scenes add little substance to the film and make the portrait of Lear being painted much heavier than it needs to be. I can’t help but think how much better it would have been to spend more time watching Lear reminisce with comedy collaborators Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner instead, even if the sequence involving the three of them is already pretty great.

Another one of the more effective creative decisions juxtaposes archive footage of Lear with the producer today. For example, as Lear sits in a cab, looking out the window onto the city around him, footage from the 1970s is intercut with the contemporary shots to form a seamless scene. It’s a simple, stylistic choice, but it works rather nicely.

Beyond that, Lear’s career is so impressive and fascinating I found myself wanting more from each of the segments that chronicle the inception and making of some of Lear’s most famous shows, especially the rarely seen behind the scenes footage at table reads and on set. All in the Family is given the most attention, showing just how innovative and unlike other TV programming the show was. The clips used will make you want to go watch every episode immediately.

Some good screentime is also given to Maude with a focus on the bold, controversial episode about abortion, something unheard of on television at the time. This sequence really helps put into perspective just how powerful Lear was in the entertainment world and how much different the playing field was back then. Around 65 million people tuned in to that episode, and about 17,000 letters were written complaining about it. That’s something that will never happen again.

But while Lear’s contribution to television is praised, it’s not done in an overwhelming, hyperbolic way. Along with all the good that Lear did on TV, the doc also point out the troubles and shortcomings of the popular but divisive Good Times, which actually led to him to respond to complaints about the show with The Jeffersons. This was easily the most fascinating part of the documentary, showing that even those who are admired so fiercely aren’t beyond making mistakes, especially when they’re responsible for six out of the ten most popular shows on TV. It also helps that Lear is one of the most humble, grateful men to ever wield so much power in entertainment.

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking, but it’s still an enlightening, intimate profile of a man who had the kind of impact on television, and entertainment in general, that we will likely never see again.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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