Sundance 2016: 'Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You' Inspires
by Alex Billington
January 22, 2016
It brought a smile to my face to see Jon Stewart profess his love and great admiration for Norman Lear. The first film I screened on opening night at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (my 10th year back) was the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, about the legendary TV writer/producer Norman Lear. Now 93 years old, he still seems full of life, so happy, and more than willing to tell stories and reflect back on his experiences. It's a delightful, amusing, engaging and very timely documentary that actually examines how much Lear pushed forward against stubborn conservative fears. More than anything, I hope this doc goes on to remind people that creativity and ingenuity can outsmart traditionalist values.
Directors Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady frame the doc in interesting ways. First, they introduce Norman Lear by showing a young kid wearing his iconic hat. Throughout the film, the kid shows up as a mirror of Lear, "just another version of" himself and it's used to emphasize how much he still feels like a kid at heart – even at age 93. They also framed the archival footage and other moments within set pieces and recreations, inside what seemed to be a warehouse (or soundstage) with minimal set dressing. Instead of showing footage from Lear's shows directly, they project it onto a screen, sometimes even having a person sitting in a chair watching. This style brings a refreshingly unique flavor to the film that makes it anything but stale. This doc is so full of life, heart and humor, and it's engaging from start to finish. Not amazing, but solid filmmaking.
Many may be familiar with Norman Lear already, as he was a very prominent part of the television world throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. However, for those (like me) who aren't very well-versed in his work, the doc nicely explains many of the stories behind how he came up with his shows and how they became such a big success. In addition, it explores very timely topics that certainly connect with today, including aspects of racism and conservatism and being opposed to censorship. He's already inspired so many other talented storytellers and comedians, but this doc gives new life and new meaning to his work, reminding us that it's still as relevant today as it was when he first came up with these ideas and pushed forward no matter what.
Not only is Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You a fascinating look at the "history of TV", in a sense, but it's also a remarkably eye-opening examination of how to be yourself, find happiness, and strive on even with so much opposition or absurdity all around. Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady seem to be challenging themselves as well, attempting to make this story about an endlessly interesting man more than just a look at his work. They've created a doc that will, hopefully, inspire more talented artists to take more risks, to be more like Norman Lear, and to find peace with themselves in the process. As great as it was to see a brief Jon Stewart cameo, the best scene was when they put Lear, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in a room together.
Alex's Sundance 2016 Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing