Steve James takes a loving look at the life and legacy of Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert did a lot for film criticism: he promoted small films and reviewed with Midwestern honesty. Life Itself, a warm-hearted and artful documentary by filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams), is a loving look at Ebert’s life as perhaps the most famous cinema critic of his age who, along with his colleague Gene Siskel, brought criticism to television in a new way.
As much as Ebert embraced the digital age, particularly after he lost the ability to speak, Life Itself is grounded in a time where analogue reigned – a far flung universe from the all-comers world of modern online film reviewing. For all of Ebert’s good humour, acumen and verve, he was not averse to mentioning his Pulitzer. He was not, as the documentary may suggest, a man free of ego or superiority. But that may be what his fans most liked about him.
No matter how you felt about him or when you came to know of him or his work, James captures the most poignant and amazing snatches of Ebert’s spirit. We see his enthusiasm even after cancer took his jaw; how whether via handwritten notes, vocal synthesizer or speaking computer, Roger got his opinion across.
Begun as a film of Ebert’s memoir, James only met Ebert five months before his death. When his subject’s condition worsened, James filmed Ebert and his wife Chaz in medical environments. Far from being intrusive or ghoulish, these scenes are remarkably intimate and show us, without vanity, Ebert’s strength and powerful personality.
Along the way we get the more expected filmed dedications and praise from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. In a nice nod to Ebert’s late co-critic Siskel, Siskel’s wife gives us insight into the competitive relationship between Siskel and Ebert, who were separated by class, education, religion and demeanor.
This is the story of one film critic who had the ability to bring the audience, the filmmaker and everyone else together. Given that it's a profession that more commonly - and almost unavoidably - divides, that's no mean feat.
Selected release from Fri 14 Nov.