UK Release Date: 14th November 2014
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Gene Siskel, AO Scott, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Marlene Siskel
Synopsis: A poignant journey through the life of celebrated film critic and writer Roger Ebert, including a touching portrayal of his final months.
The death of Roger Ebert last year was an earthquake in the world of film. He was an iconic figure in American popular culture, who almost single-handedly legitimised film criticism as a valid part of the journalism landscape. No film critic has ever managed to attain the level of impact that Ebert did and it’s unlikely that one ever will.
For the last few months of his life, Ebert was followed by Hoop Dreams filmmaker Steve James. The result is the terrific documentary Life Itself – a poignant chronicle of his final few months.
Using Ebert’s memoir as a starting point, James takes a journey through Ebert’s life. Everything is covered, from his days as editor of the college newspaper to his work as an early adopter of blogging and Twitter. All of this is interspersed with the time James spent with Ebert, visiting his hospital bed as he battled increasingly aggressive cancer, and a series of A-list talking heads.
| "He is a nice guy, but he’s not that nice."
Given the level of reverence towards Roger Ebert in the film world, it was almost inevitable that Life Itself would be something of a hagiography. It’s less a hard-hitting documentary than a celebration of a life lived to the full, even in the face of enormous adversity.
However, the genius of Life Itself is in how it doesn’t shy away from the flaws of the man it depicts. A whole segment of the film is devoted to the childish bickering between Ebert and his television partner Gene Siskel that, whilst making their personal relationship strained, generated magic on the screen. It’s these segments that shed the most light on Ebert as a man who challenged people as much as he inspired them.
Steve James also shows a clear talent for depicting Ebert’s fragility in his final days, without it feeling gratuitous. It’s genuinely shocking to see Ebert’s younger days juxtaposed with the man he became, a man whose mind was still sharper than anyone’s, even as his body began to fail him.
| "For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy."
It is during these moments of fragility that the other star of Life Itself rises in the shape of Ebert’s wife, Chaz. She is a strong, brilliant woman who clearly adored her husband. The level of access she and Ebert allowed in those final months really makes the documentary hit new heights of realism. It’s tough to watch at times, but it’s really special.
Reverent in all of the right places, but willing to look at the darker side of the man, Life Itself is a perfect distillation of a full and influential existence.
Pop or Poop?
Life Itself is a beautifully put together tribute to a man who has left indelible footprints on the worlds of film and journalism.
Steve James makes the most extraordinary level of access to Ebert in his final months in order to tell the story of his life and career.
We may never see Roger at the movies again, but Steve James definitely deserves two thumbs up.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.