2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Seven – NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU
One of the major events of the Milwaukee Film Festival is the Super Secret Members Only screening which brings in some highly anticipated film for members of Milwaukee Film. Past screenings have included films like SHORT TERM 12, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, the Oscar winning documentary UNBREAKABLE, and the Oscar nominated documentary LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM. So, anticipation is always high. I don’t know if anyone had the documentary NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU on their radar though.
Obviously Norman Lear is a more than worthy subject of a documentary. He changed American television in a profound way, making it edgier and more politically and socially relevant. He left that behind to found People for the American Way to advance his political interests. He had a father that was arrested and jailed while he was young, served in World War II, had a feminist first wife that suffered from bi-polar disorder, and a late act as a husband to a much younger wife and a father to children at an advanced age. And he’s still with us to offer his wry comments on the events of his life, still full of energy and sharp as a tack. Those are reasons to make a documentary now and the man himself guarantees some degree of interest and entertainment.
If that sounds a bit like faint praise, it is. While the NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU is slickly produced, it’s going to show up on PBS in the near future, it takes a subject that’s known for his edge and risk taking, and gives us a hagiography that’s quite mild and takes no risks. There’s room to remove a talking head commending what Lear has done and insert information on what Lear’s father did and his ultimate fate, or to question him on the end of the marriage to his first wife and her life after. The film shows that there were some racial tensions between the white Jewish Lear and the African-American cast on GOOD TIMES, but generally just brings up that there were “issues” rather than delve into them in depth. Heck, there’s not a media critic or creator that actually has any barbs for his work, questioning how funny it really was, rather there’s an endless stream of praise. For a man who mined controversy for entertainment, this shallow, non-confrontational film is not worthy of the example he set.
It’s not that NORMAN LEAR: JUST ANOTHER VERSION OF YOU is bad, the presence of Norman Lear himself is very valuable and the film makes use of a soundstage with projected screens to at least be visually a bit more than talking heads and archival footage. But what it is is safe. It will show up on PBS on AMERICAN MASTERS and fit in with that series and be forgotten in a year or two. Norman Lear created some unforgettable television, he deserves better than an ultimately forgettable documentary.
You win some, you lose some at a film festival. Still, the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival has plenty of terrific films still showing through October 6th. Tickets are available at Milwaukee Film’s website.