How did a poor Jewish kid from Connecticut bring us Archie Bunker and become one of the most successful television producers ever? Norman Lear brought provocative subjects like war, poverty, and prejudice into 120 million homes every week. He proved that social change was possible through an unlikely prism: laughter. World Premiere -Opening night selection, Sundance, 2016.
What was new was that we were engaging in reality. They're ordinary subjects in family life where they affect people, and abortion, I mean, there's much more political correctness now than there was when we were on the playing field where we hadn't played before.
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Engaging, illuminating, a little arty, and nostalgic
Norman Lear can honestly claim to have made the U.S. a better place, both apart from and through his work as a TV producer and writer. Directors Grady and Ewing have put together a creditable biographical documentary that serves as a solid introduction to the man, an overview of his work, and the influence he's had on U.S. culture.
Though there are excerpts from some of his most famous shows -- from "All in the Family" through "Maude," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," and "Fernwood 2 Night" (though no mention of "Sanford and Son," curiously) -- as well as recent comments and archival interview footage from some of the actors (a clip of Carroll O'Connor on a talk show correcting a description of his character as a "lovable bigot" by focusing on the essential unhappiness of the man is especially memorable), the emphasis is on Lear's life as a man and as an entertainment professional.
We learn about the effects of his father's conviction and imprisonment for selling fake bonds when Norman was 9, the Second World War (in which Lear served as a radio operator on a B-17 bomber), the influence of his second wife Frances in pushing for women's rights, how his overwork and the collapse of that marriage led to Lear stepping away from TV production and founding the nonprofit People for the American Way to battle the so-called Moral Majority. There's a third marriage, more children, some home video footage of the family in recent decades.
The filmmakers expend a fair amount of footage on a sound stage, showing a (presumably) 9-year-old version of Lear being affected by Father Coughlan's racist radio speeches and other events in the real man's life. (An earlier IMDb reviewer has referred to Lear purchasing a copy of the Constitution, but it was the Declaration of Independence.) Archival footage of Jerry Falwell and other televangelists of that era will make one both grateful they're gone and apprehensive about recent counterparts. Just being alive, kicking, and alert as Lear is at 93 is cause for celebration.
Whether you were a fan of his shows or not, this documentary will certainly arouse memories of the times, and the undeniable effect that Lear's work had upon them.
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