“Roger [Ebert] was not just the chief character and star of the movie that was his life, he was also the director. He brought in the cast and the scenario, and he orchestrated it.”
So says William Nack, a writer and friend of Ebert’s, in Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary based on Ebert’s autobiography. The quote is undeniably true of Ebert’s life, but not so of this documentary about his life.
Life Itself is both a fitting tribute to one of the most influential voices in film history and a brutally honest look at who he really was. Director Steve James has made a perfect documentary and one of the year’s best films.
“There were times when he wrote a note that said, ‘Kill me,'” says Ebert’s wife Chaz. It would be very easy for Life Itself to sugarcoat Ebert’s life, but it doesn’t. All throughout his life Ebert battled with demons, and even those who considered themselves his most loyal followers will find shock in the pain he lived with throughout his whole life.
This is never more evident than in Ebert’s final days where a large chunk of the film finds itself. Here we see him at his weakest, when his cancer has taken its toll. Often, the problem with cancer movies is not just that they are overly sappy (and they often are) but rather the fact that it’s still impossible for makeup to mimic what toll cancer actually has on the human body. James is unflinching in showing us this toll, and this includes hard to watch sequences where Ebert is being fed through a tube. His surgeries left him incapable of eating or drinking normally for years, but Ebert charged on.
Ebert’s charge is one unmatched by any film critic ever. Starting out from a small Illinois town, Ebert grew to become the world’s most famous critic. The film looks at his early years as a writer, his days as he first became a critic, winning the Pulitzer prize, and eventually Siskel & Ebert, the show that would launch him into superstardom.
A good portion of Life Itself is focused Ebert’s Siskel & Ebert partner Gene Siskel, and as it should be. Ebert would have never risen to the level of fame that he did if it weren’t for his polar opposite TV co-host. Together they became the two most famous critics of all time, mostly because of the strength of their chemistry. More often than not the only thing that they cared about while on screen was convincing the other that their opinion was wrong, and seeing two guys discus film in such a way made for great national TV.
Ebert’s reach from national syndication was what gave him the power he had, but it was what he did with the power that made him special. Steve James paints this in a remarkable way. He brings in stories from young filmmakers who caught their big break after favorable Ebert reviews, something that James knows well. His film Hoop Dreams wouldn’t have led to his successful career if it weren’t for Siskel and Ebert’s consistent coverage and praise of the documentary. James also brings one of the most notable directors working today (and ever) to explain just how much Siskel and Ebert changed his life. Its a huge change that’s shocking to think about.
Ebert also had an enormous effect on many film fans, teaching them through his words to see and understand film. A firm believer that films should be able to be understood by the majority, Ebert was able to share his love of the movies with many, making many love them just as much as he did.
“Life Itself: The only thing Roger loved more than movies.” This is the film’s tagline, and what an appropriate tagline it is too. Ebert was an individual with many demons, but things changed when he met his wife Chaz. By both making him a better person and being his consistently loving rock when things got bad, Chaz made the magic Roger loved in movies become the magic of his life.
Life Itself is a beautifully made movie that is an appropriate look at one of the most beloved and powerful voices in film history. By never sugarcoating yet still expressing what made him so important, Life Itself is a whirlwind of emotions stuck inside a spectacular piece of film-making. At times uproariously funny and heart wrenchingly sad, this is a special film about a special man.
Grade: ‘Two Thumbs Up!’ (A+)
Rated: R (for brief sexual images/nudity and language)
Life Itself opens in theaters and on demand on July 4.