Along with dozens of others, I was inspired to become a film critic by Roger Ebert. One day, back in 2005, I saw an episode of “Ebert and Roeper” and was amazed that someone could actually give their straight-forward and honest opinions about movies on a TV show. Almost instantly, I knew that was what I wanted to do. And I was fortunate to spend a few memorable days with him and his incredibly loving wife Chaz in Chicago back in 2011, taking part in the revival of “Ebert Presents: At the Movies” on PBS that summer.
After a half-century career of sharing not only his extraordinary movie reviews but views on everything from politics to rice cooking, Roger passed away last year at the age of 70 following a series of courageous bouts with cancer. “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James had planned on making a documentary about Roger, based on his 2011 memoir “Life Itself”. It was to be a year in the life, not simply focusing on his health issues, but showcasing Ebert attending film festivals, screenings, and other events: still doing what he loved, while continuing to beat the odds. But, since Roger died five months into filming, the movie James has made is not that. Instead, it is a raw, funny, heartbreaking and daring look at the life, and death, of one of the most influential and beloved people in the history of American culture.
“Life Itself” begins on the streets of Chicago one week after Roger’s death, with thousands gathered in and outside of the famous Chicago Theatre, preparing to pay tribute to Roger at a ceremony that evening. This sets the tone perfectly, as the film itself is an homage to Ebert and the importance he played in the lives of so many. We get the “growing-up” stories (complete with B&W photos), along with dialogue mostly from a narrator reading excerpts from the book. There are also fascinating stories, some told for the first time, from longtime friends, producers of the TV shows, directors (including a very candid Martin Scorsese), fellow critics, family members and those truly influenced by Ebert.
We also learn how Roger’s love of movies began, his serious drinking problem, a venture into screenwriting, and that iconic love-hate relationship with “Sneak Previews” co-host Gene Siskel. For me, this is the best part of the film. Learning about the early days of their groundbreaking show, as well as the outrageous stories and hilarious “behind-the-scenes” footage of these two arch-rivals who, eventually, became great friends, is utterly fascinating. An entire documentary on the dynamic “Siskel & Ebert” partnership, complete with all the best clips and outtakes, needs to be made.
But just as prominent and powerful are the scenes of Roger’s final months: family visits, his daily medical procedures and rehab activities. Some of these are difficult to watch, and while Chaz didn’t initially approve of having them in the movie, Roger made a deal with James to use them, and she now realizes that they make the movie even stronger. The true heart of “Life Itself” is the bond between Roger and Chaz. They found each other relatively late in life and loved each other until the very end. Chaz makes it clear that she never gave-up on Roger because he was such a fighter. Her thoughts are the most honest and revealing in the entire film.
“Life Itself” is rated R for language and some brief movie clips containing nudity. It’s a must-see for anyone impacted by Roger Ebert in any way, and that adds-up to millions and millions of people. Credit James for perfectly blending past and present, laughter and tears, the best of times and the worst of times in this wonderful tribute to a man whose life was more than worthy of Two Thumbs Up.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Life Itself” gets an A.