Steve James helms this wonderful documentary about the life and death of the great film critic Roger Ebert. With a dexterity and a frankness becoming of the man himself, James charts Ebert’s time as a grizzled newspaper editor in Chicago, his accidental introduction to the career that would define him, his volatile on and off-screen relationship with fellow critic Gene Siskel, his late marriage and the long-lasting illness that shaped his final years.
The punchy and brusque attitude of the film gives it an infectious charm and an irrepressible sense of poignancy. Despite its limited distribution, this is a work that demands and deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone, familiar or unfamiliar with Ebert, and regardless of the degree of their knowledge of cinema and its hagiography. James perfectly captures the populism that Ebert fully embraced, encouraging everyone to talk about film no matter who they are or where they come from. This documentary is a masterclass in accessible, engaging filmmaking that speaks to the heart and the brain, without relying on schmaltz or grappling with misguided intellectualism.
Admittedly, the focus of the film is broad, limiting its exploration of certain aspects of Ebert’s life (such as his childhood and the twilight of his career), and at times the feature turns into a crypto-advertisement for Ebert’s blog and memoir, but this is a churlish reading of a work entirely in fitting with the man’s egotism. Furthermore, introducing the audience to his writings is appropriate for those interested in learning more about him (and inevitable, given that the source material for much of the film is his memoir). In spite of its redactions, Life Itself remains an honest, intimate, and thorough summary of Ebert’s life and work.
In some ways, its broadness is also its strength, in that it allows a discussion of the nature and purpose of (film) criticism (without falling into didacticism), while still making room for a bit of love, loss, illness, and many other themes that are relevant to everyone. The film may be a documentary but the story it tells is a gripping narrative as in the most moving of features, offering story arcs, colourful characters, a beautiful soundtrack, twists, turns, laughs, tears, and every possible emotion in the human spectrum. This is exactly what it says on the tin – Life Itself.
Beyond this, however, is a simple story of a man who gave so much to film and film criticism, working relentlessly until the day he died. Not only did his reviews, television series, public seminars, conference appearances, articles, tweets, and blogs have an effect on audiences and distributors alike, Ebert himself was an inspiration to fellow critics and filmmakers.
On a number of occasions, Ebert gave support to filmmakers like Errol Morris, Ava DuVernay, and Ramin Bahrani, who would otherwise have found it very difficult to gain exposure in the industry. Indeed, DuVernay claims Ebert gave the most sensitive reading of a young black female filmmaker’s work she ever came across, stating that directors could trust him with their films, to which he would give honest, insightful, and constructive critique. Martin Scorsese was an executive producer on the film, and gives a passionate interview in which he credits Ebert with getting him back on track when he was bankrupting himself through drugs in the 1980s, and being a critic whose opinion he genuinely cared about and sought out.
Ebert had a resonance throughout every expanse of the universe of film, and all the stars in the galaxy orbited around him. His fans were not just his viewers and readers, but artists, friends, and colleagues.
However, this film is not just about Roger Ebert, nor is it simply about film critics, filmmakers, or even its focus on all of us. There is another key character in this film, a strong and beautiful person who gave so much to Ebert and gives so much to James’s documentary – Ebert’s widow Chaz. An intelligent and politicized African-American woman, she had apprehensions about marrying a white man in the aftermath of the 1992 LA riots (and because of the responses of the more conservative elements of both of their families). Chaz displays a formidable determination throughout all the adversity she faced in this picture. She is a rock and as fascinating a human being as Ebert ever was.
Life Itself is full of heart, and shows an all-encompassing love for its subject, film, and film audiences. It is a powerful, finely-crafted piece of work that leaves a lasting impression and tells a beautiful story in a beautiful way.