The biggest complaints of biopics is they often play like a greatest hits album of the subject’s life moments, leaving psychological character development by the wayside. I think biographical documentaries rarely face the same scrutiny as biopics because they are dealing directly with the subject. They can skate by on whether or not their subjects are truly fascinating figures. Norman Lear is a fascinating, important figure. He created a number of the greatest sitcoms of all time, including All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Maude. He was also a political activist, pushing back against the rise of Bible-thumpers entering politics. And at 93 years-old, the man is still kicking and working in the business. However, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is not as progressive and groundbreaking as its subject, going back to the greatest hits collection model with standard celebrity talking heads.
The structure of the film is basically a personal anecdote followed by how it relates to one of the shows he created. He had a troubled past with his no-good dad, hence All in the Family. He was married to a feminist activist, hence Maude. Black people were unsatisfied with their portrayal on Good Times, hence The Jeffersons. And so on and so forth. Throw in clips of George Clooney and Rob Reiner telling us how important these shows were, and you have your film.
The most interesting gimmick the film has its in the recreations. These are done with a young boy, as Lear is a child at heart, on a proscenium stage with minimum amounts of scenery while projections cover the upstage wall. They are not straight reenactments but more tonal manifestations of moments of his life. Unfortunately, they feel misplaced because of the fairly straightforward approach the rest of the film takes. Had the rest of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You taken this more abstract aesthetic, it might be more interesting. Instead, moments like these or Lear singing along with a couple of his favorite songs feel like padding or transitions.
That is not to say the documentary is wholly without charms. Lear is an immensely endearing, funny man, and listening to him talk is a joy. More than anything, it made me want to pick up an audiobook of his memoir Even This I Get to Experience just to listen to him. At 93, he is still the liveliest person in the room. It’s rather inspiring.
Some of the talking head moments are enjoyable. The best is, of course, a small sit down with Lear, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks, three of the funniest minds who ever lived. Period. Watching these three vets tell stories and do bits is lovely and really funny. I would have preferred the movie if the film was ninety minutes of that conversation.
Oh, did I mention this movie is only ninety minutes? How often do bio movies have that short of a runtime? Especially if you are doing a cradle to grave look at a life (grave in the figurative here, as Lear is obviously not dead), a longer runtime is preferred. This is a greatest hits album, but the hits are only two minutes long. The exploration of a moment is limited to: He made this show. It was great and groundbreaking. On to the next thing. Because everything moves by so quickly, it automatically assumes you are familiar with Lear’s body of work. You already need a relationship with All in the Family for what they’re saying to connect. Thankfully, I do know his shows, but there will be plenty of young viewers who have zero point of reference for this.
Look, nothing in Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is outright bad. It’s a competently put together piece of work. There’s just nothing vital about it. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady hope to skate by on the charisma of their subject, but that only gets you so far. They needed to craft a film around him that is as revolutionary as the man they’re documenting. Every moment feels staid and routine. It’s a film you have seen a hundred times before and will see a hundred times more afterwards. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is what Lear never was: average.