It was hard enough to compose my thoughts into prose when Roger Ebert passed away on April 4, 2013. But it’s harder to review a film like Life Itself, Steve James’ stirring documentary on the life and times of the Chicago-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic without getting a little too personal, so I’ll keep this short.
As I stated in my short piece after his passing… for many of my formative years as a movie buff, Ebert was the only film critic whose opinion mattered. Before the age of Rotten Tomatoes and Twitter, Ebert’s voice was the end all, be all. His writing was my guiding light to the under-lit caverns of the film world. His style—clean, warm, and unpretentious—was the model that I based my writing style on. Although I never knew the man personally or even corresponded with him, he was practically the father of movie lovers for my generation.
Unlike many talking head pieces that skim through its subject’s greatest hits, Life Itself, which was based on Ebert’s autobiography of the same name, covers nearly every iota of the man’s life—the highs, the lows, the ugly moments and eventually, even the downright unwatchable stuff. It’s an unflinching portrait of the man—exactly the type of film Ebert would have championed. This is never more evident in the scenes that book-end the film in which Roger receives painful suction treatment for his thyroid cancer during the last few months of his life at a hospital in Chicago. These sequences are among the most difficult to watch scenes in a film in recent years but its also essential to the experience because it fits in with Ebert’s life philosophy: Live his life without secrets.
In between those grueling and unbelievably-moving sequences, James takes us through most of the major events in Roger’s life, beginning with his early days as a budding writer and editor at his school newspaper. As the movie progresses, we learn about his days as a wild bachelor who went through women like underwear, his battle with alcoholism, his blossoming relationship with wife Chaz, and naturally, his rise in the world of film criticism—from the Pulitzer, which he loved to flaunt, to At the Movies and his rivalry and lifelong friendship with Gene Siskel. There are also vignettes that focus on how he championed independent and international filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani, his personal rivalries with other film critics, and even his brief career as a screenwriter (he wrote the cult hit Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).
As we learn, Ebert wasn’t just a celebrity among critics and film scholars but among filmmakers too. He rubbed shoulders with the biggest and brightest in Hollywood, including guys like Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, the later who he counted as a close friend. But just because he was friends with filmmakers, doesn’t mean their films were exempt from being panned by him. In fact, Scorsese is quick to point out an amusing example of that during the movie. Life Itself, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, isn’t merely a career-retrospective doc but also a chronicle of Ebert’s lasting legacy. Roger lived life to the fullest, and this documentary is an affirmation of that. A very enthusiastic Thumbs up.
Running time: 120 minutes
Companies: CNN Films, Magnolia Pictures
Rating: R for brief sexual images/nudity and language