Life Itself (2014)

Life Itself (2014)
  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Documentary | Biography
  • Director: Steve James
  • Cast: Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel


‘Life Itself’ recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert – a story that’s by turns personal, wistful, funny, painful, and transcendent. The film explores the impact and legacy of Roger Ebert’s life: from his Pulitzer Prize-winning film criticism and his nearly quarter-century run with Gene Siskel on their review show, to becoming one of the country’s most influential cultural voices, and finally to Roger’s inspiring battles with cancer and the resulting physical disability – how he literally and symbolically put a new face on the disease and continued to be a cultural force despite it.

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  • As the title suggests, Life Itself is not content with being a simple biography of one of the greatest critics in the history of film, Roger Ebert. It’s successful attempts at painting a broader picture of a life lived to it’s fullest is helped by Ebert’s active participation. At the time of filming, Ebert was hospital-ridden, undergoing one of many treatments throughout his decade-long battle with cancer, and knew he’d already lived longer than anyone expected. He takes pride in the fact that his final moments are being documented and calls the film his ‘swan song’, seeing it as a fitting end to a career spent analysing those in front of and behind the camera.

    Based on his autobiography of the same name, Ebert clearly sees Life Itself just as much his film as it is of film-maker Steve James, whose film Hoop Dreams (1994) Ebert and long-time co-host Gene Siskel had both championed upon its release. He cracks wise using a computerised voice system (he was unable to speak at this point following the removal of his jaw), directs James to point the camera into the mirror in order to reveal the man behind it, and exchanges gleeful emails with the director following the capturing of something never seen in a documentary, some grisly suction footage. His loving wife Chaz is also an eternal presence, assisting her husband in any way she can.

    Despite the friendship between film-maker and subject, the film doesn’t chicken out and skip over Ebert’s many flaws. In the early days of his career, when he was a cocky young journalist working for the Chicago Sun-Times, he spent his nights in a dingy bar with his colleagues, telling stories, chugging beer, and taking centre stage. He would walk home wishing he was dead, and it didn’t take him long to realise he was an alcoholic. His friends and co-workers call him a show-off, the only child who always got his way. This is no more evident than in the stock footage of his work with Gene Siskel on At The Movies, where two highly competitive, argumentative, and fiercely intelligent men would bicker like children.

    But there was a strange kind of love between he and Siskel, and we discover that Ebert was devastated to learn of his death at 53 from a brain tumour, something Siskel had kept from his long-time collaborator. And the love pours in by the bucket-load from his friends in the business, with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Ava DuVernay, offering personal anecdotes of the man they clearly greatly admired and appreciated. As a biography, it’s highly informative, but this the film retains most of it’s power by celebrating a life lived to it’s fullest, while respecting the lurking inevitability of death. The final emails exchanged between a dying Ebert and a none-the-wiser James is one of the most moving moments ever put onto film. This is the swan song the great man would have no doubt dreamt of.

    Rating: 4/5

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