Life Itself, 2014.
Directed by Steve James.
Featuring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Werner Herzog, Stephen Stanton, Marlene Siskel.
Documentary detailing the life and career of movie critic and social commentator Roger Ebert.
Life Itself isn’t just the story of Roger Ebert and his rise from newspaper writer through to arguably the best-known film critic in the world; it’s also a testament to the human spirit and about making the most of the time we have. A message that we should all know already you may think, but seeing Ebert in his final days before he succumbed to the cancer that caused his disfigurement and the loss of his speech is quite possibly one of the most inspiring examples of courage that you’ll ever see, and it never hurts to be reminded about what is important in this thing we call life.
But before we get to that part of Ebert’s life director Steve James brings us the story of a man who seemed to know what he was destined for from childhood, and as we follow him through his career from writing film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 – which he continued to do for the rest of his life – and onto his various speaking engagements, reporting jobs and his popular TV show with rival critic Gene Siskel, and it is the commentaries of colleagues from that time and outtakes from the TV show that are the most revealing of Roger Ebert’s character.
Passionate about his craft and totally driven, Ebert was a man who knew his own mind and that quality is celebrated by the many commentators all paying tribute to him but, unusually for a documentary of this nature, he is also often shown behaving like a petulant child as Siskel deliberately wound him up by feeding his ego. Siskel himself was as opinionated and passionate as Ebert and although their professional relationship was always known to be quite tense, the behind-the-scenes insults that the two hurl at each other is both amusing but also a little bit cringeworthy. Despite their many differences the respect that they held for each other comes across and is given even greater significance when Gene Siskel’s wife Marlene tells how Gene didn’t let on to Roger about his own health problems and wanted everything to carry on as normal. Gene Siskel died in 1999 and the impact of his illness on Roger Ebert was immeasurable in Ebert being totally open about his own health issues that would follow in the next decade.
But Life Itself isn’t a morose film, and although the footage of a very ill Roger Ebert being unable to speak and communicating through speech on his computer is tragic there is optimism to it that a whole team of screenwriters couldn’t come up with if they tried. Up until his death in 2013 Ebert was still writing reviews and updating his blog regularly, and watching him interact with his family as he continued to do what made him happy in the face of such adversity is a wake-up call to us all to embrace the present and to do what makes us happy. As any struggling movie critic will tell you, Roger Ebert – whether you agreed with him or not – was and remains a huge influence in terms of his written output but in Life Itself it is his influence and legacy as a human being that makes the most impact. A wonderful, wonderful film.
Fancy giving Life Itself a watch? Then buy it on DVD here in the US, and here in the UK.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★