Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are masters of a certain kind of observational documentary. They especially shine above all the gimmicky exposition films out there, never more apparently than with the anthology feature Freakonomics, in which they offer the only truly unique and interesting segment amidst a compilation of fluffy adaptations of the popular nonfiction book of the same name. The pair has now left their comfort zone and made the sort of doc they’re typically an alternative to. And it saddens me to say that this film, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, is a misfire from them. Their first.
The effort is to be appreciated at least. They’ve taken on a profile of Norman Lear, the nonagenarian TV legend who really deserves such a film right now. He’s old and important, so it’s surprising the PBS series American Masters hasn’t already gotten to him before now. The further American culture gets from his groundbreaking 1970s sitcoms that dealt with bigotry and feminism and black lives that matter, the more we need to be reminded of his work. This year, with an Archie Bunker type close to becoming President of the United States, a look at Lear’s legacy is as essential as it ever will be.
Just Another Version of You is not that rich or relevant of a film, however. It’s not anywhere near the sort of in-depth biographical or cultural study that O.J.: Made in America is, and not just because it’s only a fifth of the length. I only compare the two because I want to acknowledge how that miniseries is making others of its genre, of any size, look really bad now. Lear’s life merits a certain level of complexity. It also requires an approach befitting its subject, not the kind of artsy techniques and mild-mannered tone found here. The doc is not hagiographic, at least, but it still feels awfully soft for a guy who had guts as strong as his.
Lear does cry on camera. And in one moment he curses, with passionate reflection. His spirit is the greatest asset of Just Another Version of You, and it is great having him on this stage at this point in his life. Little else is that engrossing or substantial. The film is centered on Lear’s relationship to his father, partly the inspiration for Bunker and an absentee figure imprisoned for fraud when his son was only nine years old. The effects of that paternal void in his childhood can be traced across Lear’s life and work and his focus on family or lack thereof in both areas, though the film barely draws the connective tissue for a cohesive story.
Instead there are a lot of clips without context, much of them projected on the wall of a set where Lear and others interviewed (Russell Simmons, for one) view them nostalgically. There are original scenes in which a nine-year-old kid wearing Lear’s signature hat stands in for him in dreamy, theatrical reenactments, and it’s a device that does not work because it’s never compatible with the personality of the subject, no matter how much we’re told that he’s like a little boy inside the body of a 93-year-old man and no matter how much the stagey aspect might seem suited for a sitcom icon. His shows didn’t really involve kids, so it’s an odd choice.
There are also paths that lead to nowhere, either because there winds up being no good point to them or the film doesn’t go far enough. With one of them, Lear even states, “You don’t have time for this story.” He’s right, and it bears no significance to the doc. A lot of filler like that takes up space that could have been used for more focused insight on what is interesting, like Lear’s strife with cast members over the content of their programs, especially the racial dynamic of his production of the African-American led series Good Times and The Jeffersons. Or followed through on his later political activities and drop in notoriety.
Or, if there’s nothing else worth addressing than maybe something about the influence of his creative or activist endeavors and what he means to the world now. Just Another Version of You isn’t of any value as television history or comprehensive as biography. It’s a showcase of Lear in his old age for an audience who knows the history and is familiar enough with the man to enjoy it as maybe a supplementary visual appendix to his recently published memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience.” It will do fine with New York crowds where Lear himself will make appearances at screenings, and it will do fine on PBS as light viewing.