“Look at a movie that a lot of people love and you'll find something profound no matter how silly the film may seem.”
Life Itself is a touching documentary directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) about the life of the beloved film critic, Roger Ebert. The documentary is based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, Life Itself, and it follows his journey as a young boy growing up in a small Illinois town, his education and early success as a print journalist, his struggle with alcoholism, his achievements at the Sun-Times as a film critic which garnered him a Pulitzer Prize, his marriage to Chaz, his collaboration with Siskel on their national televised show At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert, all the way to his long battle with cancer that claimed his life. You don’t have to know who Ebert was to be touched by the film because James does a fantastic job of capturing the key role he played in film criticism. On the one hand this documentary works as a memoir of a beloved man but it also works on its own as a solid research on the history of film criticism and how it has evolved from print to TV and now to the internet. The film never shies away from the criticism Ebert received for simplifying his reviews for the TV format and changing the way the game was played, but it does defend his passion for movies and the way he wanted to engage in a normal conversation with everyone about the importance of movies and how they impacted his life. His reviews helped many aspiring young directors to get noticed and there are some fascinating and touching testimonies from Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani, Werner Herzog, and Ava DuVernay about how Ebert made a difference in their careers.
Personally, I was always interested in reading what Ebert had to say about the new films that were being released. When I watched a movie that I really liked, I wanted to know what Ebert thought about it. There were many films I would’ve never heard of if it weren’t for the positive reviews he gave some independent projects. Ebert was always my favorite critic once I began to feel passionate about movies as an art form and he introduced me to film criticism as well. If it weren’t for his TV show I probably wouldn’t have been interested in actually engaging in discussions about movies and how they influence our lives. I began watching him when he did the show with Richard Roeper (who unfortunaltey isn’t in this documentary), but I have watched many clips of his earlier show with Siskel. I don’t follow many celebrities on Twitter, but Ebert was one of the few I was always looking forward to reading. His dedication and love for film are beautifully captured in this documentary as he found refugee from his battle with cancer through watching and criticizing movies. The support he received from his loving wife is also very touching and Life Itself delivers several emotional moments. It is a documentary that every film lover should experience even if they don’t have a clue of who Ebert was.
The highlights of Life Itself are without a doubt the scenes where Ebert and Siskel are together. These two rival critics had a huge ego and there is plenty of footage where you can actually see them fighting like two brothers would in real live. I am glad they decided to include those scenes because it does show the love hate relationship they and I think that was the ingredient that made the show so successful. The testimonies from Scorsese and DuVernay are also quite emotional because it showed what a great person Ebert was and how ahead of the curve he was in film criticism. The scenes where he is in the hospital are also solid and Ebert is not afraid of letting the audience see the effect that the cancer had on him. Despite it all he always kept an upbeat and humorous attitude towards life and the documentary does a good job at pointing out how much the movies and his family helped him through his battles. Life Itself is a great tribute to Ebert’s life and his film legacy.