Norman Lear, now 94, creator of “All in the Family,’’ “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” and a dozen other shows that if they did not transform American popular culture they at least stocked TV with enough rerun material for decades to come, deserves a documentary as innovative and mercurial as himself.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady come close.
They put together a breakneck collage of interviews with family, business associates, and friends, clips from Lear’s credits, starting with “The Colgate Comedy Hour” in the 1950s, and him being interviewed on just about every TV news and talk show over the past 40 years. They show clips from Lear’s programs to disgruntled cast members and random celebrities (George Clooney?). They show video recordings of Norman Lear script meetings over the years and have him read from his 2014 autobiography, “Even This I Get to Experience.” They shoot in barren studios with multiple rear projections of archival film or old family photographs. All punctuated by visits from Lear’s 9-year-old inner child, wearing Lear’s trademark tattered cap, observing minimalist reenactments from Lear’s life.
In short, the film inserts us into a solipsistic universe of Norman Lear, one that also overlaps many of the most significant social, political, and show-biz issues of the second half of the 20th century.
Ironically, the documentary attempts the opposite of what Lear himself set out to do. He had no use for fancy production — he played his shows live and on stage like theatrical performances. Perhaps that’s why he got away with so much. The old-fashioned methods, but with newfangled ideas. Never more so than with his first huge hit, “All in the Family,” in which Archie Bunker became “America’s most beloved bigot,” a prejudiced, ignorant troglodyte who would be considered centrist today.
But not all is the joy of creating and succeeding and getting praised by youngsters like Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, and Jon Stewart. In his mid-80s, in preparation for his memoir, Lear went into analysis for the first time. What was driving him to overachieve? Why did he feel 9 in his 10th decade? (Hint — it’s his father.)
Near the end of the film Lear watches one of the most poignant scenes he ever put on TV. He weeps. While he was making America laugh by satirizing its discontents, he was just scratching the surface of his own.
★★★ NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. At Kendall Square. 91 minutes. Unrated (political correctness, political incorrectness, satire before its time, satire that doesn’t age well).