Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Steve James.
Another must see for film buffs!
Life Itself is a revealing and deeply personal documentary about the late Roger Ebert, the doyen of film critics who was for forty years the film reviewer for Chicago’s Sun Times newspaper. He passed away in 2013 following a long battle with cancer and ill health.
Knowledgeable about world cinema, Ebert was the definitive mainstream and populist film reviewer, but he also had the power to make or break a film with his reviews. His reviews often had a more personal take on the film and the broader themes, and his style struck a chord with readers. As well as writing numerous books on cinema, Ebert also scripted Russ Meyer’s ill-fated and tacky 1970s sex and sin drama Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls.
While the cancer may have silenced Ebert’s voice it didn’t destroy his spirit, and he found a new audience via the Internet and his blog. However, I found some of this material dealing with his hospitalisation and difficult recuperation a little sad and depressing. Some of the scenes depicting Ebert’s ailing health are painful to watch at times. Stephen Stanton reads passages from Ebert’s book Life Itself, giving an emotional voice to his memoirs.
This loving and poignant documentary from Chicago filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, etc) is an affectionate tribute to Ebert, who loved movies, loved words, and had a huge appetite for life itself. In some ways, James is repaying Ebert for helping to launch his career, when the esteemed reviewer championed his Hoop Dreams.
Life Itself was made with the full cooperation and support of Ebert and his wife Chaz, so James has had access to lots of personal photographs and videos, and is able to gain some intimate insights into the respected journalist and his life. James has also been granted access to film Ebert in his hospital, showing the ravages of his cancer. But he also captures that indomitable spirit and humour that was part of his character.
There are plenty of little gems in the film, with some wonderful anecdotes about his early career as a young journalist and his battle with alcoholism. There is plenty of archival material, photographs and plenty of film clips. There are a number of interviews with colleagues, that give some insights in Ebert’s character, and fellow film critics like Richard Corliss speak of his passion for cinema. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (who is also one of the executive producers of the documentary) and Werner Herzog talk about his influence and importance, while Errol Morris talks about how Ebert’s praise for his first documentary basically launched his career.
However, some of the most entertaining parts deal with his prickly relationship with rival critic Gene Siskel, with whom he hosted a popular and long running weekly television show At The Movies. There was a deep professional rivalry between the pair, and I wanted to see more of their entertaining verbal stoushes and amusing outtakes. James probes their complex relationship with some film clips and revealing interviews with Siskel’s widow. The show itself was hugely popular and provided the template for our own David and Margaret At The Movies.
Life Itself is a fitting celebration of the life and career of Ebert, and something of a moving elegy. But, like many film buffs, I wish there was more of his views on cinema and more examples of his reviews and insights into some of his favourite films and filmmakers, and a bit less of his health issues.