THE DOCUMENTARY “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” on “American Masters”
WHEN | WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Promising “unprecedented” access to Norman Lear’s personal archives and to Lear himself, this 90-minute film by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady takes viewers on a tour of the life and career of the man who created “All in the Family.” Besides Lear, 94, others interviewed include Phil Rosenthal, Bill Moyers, John Amos and George Clooney.
MY SAY Lear is the most influential producer in TV history and therein lies quite a story. In fact, Lear himself already told it. His 2014 autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience,” was distinguished by an insistence on understanding his life as opposed to applying a couple of layers of Johnson’s high-gloss floor wax to it. The celebrations — and battles — had long since ended. The TV career was decades in the past. What he really wanted to figure out is what the whole shebang actually meant.
Lear decided that at least one answer could be scrawled on a gum wrapper, or, in his case, quite literally a bumper sticker: “Just another version of you.” Like leaves of grass or stars in the sky, we’re all essentially the same with a few minor variations, he explained, and he further elaborates in this film that “human beings are just a little foolish. That knits us all together.”
Lear’s informative, unsparing and largely self-deprecating book pursued this line of inquiry. His “American Masters” — a sumptuous, entertaining sprawl that’s heavy on clips, somewhat lighter on their significance — does not. There’s too much story to tell, too much floor wax to apply. This is the long-awaited celebration. It’s a richly deserved one, just not a sufficiently explanatory one.
Ironically enough, Lear’s life story is especially tough to wrestle onto a TV screen — in part because so much of it predated TV. Raised in New Haven, Connecticut, he came from a broken family, flew 52 missions over Germany with the 772nd Bombardment Squadron, wrote jokes for Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Martha Raye. He then changed — or “inverted” may be the better word — prime time by transforming the blandest, most innocuous form of TV (the family sitcom) into a political manifesto. There were in fact two careers — the TV one and the political one. Both were vastly influential, both also controversial.
Questions of context and inclusion become important in the telling. That’s where “Just Another Version of You” struggles at times. The film explores how — as a Jew, and a boy barely into his teens — he listened to virulently anti-Semitic broadcasts by the Rev. Charles Coughlin. But there’s almost nothing here about his life’s other profoundly formative experience — the one aboard a B-17. Without “All in the Family,” this “American Masters” might never have been made. But neither the show nor its vast legacy gets nearly enough attention, while Jean Stapleton isn’t even mentioned. She’s not alone: “Sanford and Son” and “One Day at a Time” are passed over as well.
In probably the best moments, Lear is seen watching a couple of classic Archie Bunker scenes. They’re especially moving and a pointed reminder that without Carroll O’Connor, who died in 2001, this “American Masters” might never have been made, either.
“Just Another Version” is excellent in plenty of other places. An early interview of Esther Rolle (who died in 1998) and a fresh one of John Amos explain how an on-set revolt by the actors at “Good Times” (1974-79) led indirectly to the creation of “The Jeffersons” (’75-’85). It was all news to me, and fascinating.
“Norman Lear was part of the healing in what he gave us,” Russell Simmons says of the particular influence of “The Jeffersons.” That’s not only a sweeping assessment but an accurate one — and yet another chapter in this extraordinary life that I wished had been told in a little more detail.
BOTTOM LINE More entertaining than informative, this “Masters” portrait is nevertheless filled with some stunning footage. (The best interview? Of Lear himself.)