Sundance 2016: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, by David Bax
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is a fairly familiar biographical documentary when appraised superficially. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find a deeper rumination on time and longevity. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But with the avuncular Lear at the center, the film finds hope in that. Lear embodies an innate human goodness that is able to prevail though every shift in culture and history.
The film tells the story, in a nonlinear fashion, of Lear’s life, from son of a criminal to World War II pilot to comedy writer for the likes of Jerry Lewis to producer of some of the most successful, challenging and important sitcoms in American history, finally ending up with his late life emergence as a full on social and political activist.
Ewing and Grady assemble the standard collection of talking heads, old footage and recreations. There’s no fault in embracing these conventions, though, when you have an interview subject as lively and entertaining as Lear, as well as folks like Rob Reiner, John Amos, Phil Rosenthal, George Clooney and others. Interviews are mixed with shots of these figures watching clips from Lear’s career. The sight of Russell Simmons losing his mind with laughter at a scene from The Jeffersons makes the only case you need for this device.
Within the overall conventional approach, though, Ewing and Grady find ways to inject a personal and carefully considered vision. Those clips the interviewees watch are projected on a curtain that occasionally billows, causing the image to shimmer like so much fog that could be blown out of existence at any moment. And the recreation of young Lear listening to the radio in his bedroom includes the moments before “action” is called. In both cases, the filmmakers are calling attention to the temporary nature of the constructs by which ideas are transmitted. Only the ideas themselves are meant to last. The rest will fall away like the rocket boosters on a spacecraft.
One sequence late in the film beautifully distills Ewing and Grady’s thoughts on the passage of time. We see modern day Lear sitting in a car, looking out the window. But when we cut to the ostensible point of view shots, what we see passing by is the New York City of decades ago. Lear has persisted into his nineties watching the world change and stay the same while trying to make what difference he can. After he’s gone, though, all of the important things about him will carry on. After all, he’s just another version of you.