NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU was an Opening Night Film and screened as a part of the Documentary Premieres category at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. For more information, head here.
I’m going to be completely honest with you guys: I didn’t know who Norman Lear was before reading about this documentary. I know, I know. Apparently I live under a rock or something. What drew me to Norman Lear was the director team: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. They directed one of my all-time favourite documentaries, Jesus Camp, and I was really excited to see them at Sundance again.
Ewing and Grady’s previous films (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, Detropia) tackled some serious subject matter, so I was curious to see how they would approach their first profile documentary. And not just any profile, but a profile of arguably one of the most radical and prolific television producers/writers/creators in history.
Now, for those living underneath the same rock as me, Lear is responsible for bringing “reality” to sitcoms. He wanted shows that reflected real people, real families, real politics, real problems and he did that through shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. He pushed the envelope so far that Nixon had him on a watchlist. And yet, he always made you laugh.
The documentary expertly weaves through Lear’s personal history, his television career, and his political activism with thoughtful commentary from Lear himself and his family, friends, and colleagues. Even George Clooney, because, of course, George Clooney. It could be criticized that they all only have fantastic things to say about Lear, but it’s clear from the tone and style of this documentary that we are here to celebrate a great man and not delve into the negative or problematic.
And what style Norman Lear has! Lear’s flashbacks and memories are visualized through a bit of scripted magic: a little boy on a sparsely decorated theatrical stage. This is a nod to Lear saying at the beginning of the documentary that despite his age, he’s always felt like a child at heart. I think it complements the man and the stories perfectly and sets the documentary apart from other more typical profile documentaries.
A specific moment that jumped out at me was the backlash Lear and his crew faced for an episode of Maude that dealt with abortion. Lear fought the censors and they did it and letters were written and people were scandalized and pearls were clutched. That was in 1972. Yet here we are in 2016 and it’s still up there in pearl clutching territory when television shows attempt to discuss abortion (do a search for “Scandal abortion episode” and you’ll see what I mean).
Norman Lear serves as both a beautiful biography and a reminder that we still, and always will, desperately need champions like Lear to challenge the status quo.
Siân Melton is covering Sundance for us live from Park City, Utah. Read about her other work, including her Toronto-based film series The MUFF Society, below.