Although it’s clichéd to admit, this new documentary of film critic’s Roger Ebert’s life really makes you think about your own life and what you’ve managed to accomplish. In comparison to Ebert, what you’ve done is still probably not enough.
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting with the new documentary currently in limited release called “Life Itself” which focuses not only on the life and career of film critic Roger Ebert best known as one half of the ground breaking film critic duo of “Siskel & Ebert” and from his noteworthy Pulitzer Prize winning career in his writing of books and reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times.
Documentaries can be a tough sell to any movie going audience, especially if you are not interested in the subject matter. But with this fascinating journey through time this film allows the viewer to travel through the pivotal moments that shaped who Roger Ebert became. And it allows us to imagine ourselves as the same kind of film aficionado that his writing and appearances on our screens inspired us all to want to become. It is these little morsels that shape who Roger Ebert became as a film reviewer that they viewers will find most intriguing and memorable. For instance “Life Itself” shares that Ebert didn’t start off wanting to be a film critic, he was a news junkie, journalist at his soul who loved to write and when the opportunity to become a film critic arises at the Sun-Times he jumps at it and as they say, a star is born.
Through archival clips and photos we see a past and a present. Director Steve James who Ebert once championed for his noteworthy 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams“ managed to forge a beautiful friendship with the celebrated film critic and originally wanted showcase how Ebert was handling his life after being diagnosed a mouth cancer that left him without his lower jaw and unable to eat or drink on his own. After being admitted to the hospital, cameras were supposed to follow Ebert and his supportive wife Chaz as they navigated his rehabilitation and eventual recovery. Except Ebert never recovered and eventually succumbed to his disease. Instead we are treated to family, friends, colleagues and fans reminiscing about how wonderful a career and life that Ebert truly had.
I found this unfortunate turn of events oddly uplifting as it gently reminds us how precious life can be and how lucky each and every one of us is to have had the opportunity to take advantage of experiencing life’s ultimate moments. And we are lucky, thanks to Chaz who married Ebert later in their adult lives, to have all of this documentation through archival videos and photographs to be willing to share their lives as a couple with the audience.
Before Ebert leaves this world, we do get a glimpse into what he and Chaz mean to each other through various up close and intimate experiences, like the challenges of coming home from the hospital or the decision to end one’s life, it is all played out in front of cameras. Not for any shock or debatable value, but this is clearly to show that the Ebert’s were living their lives as anyone would as if they weren’t famous.
I loved this movie, see it now in theatres while you can or on VOD when it becomes available. This film was distributed from CNN Films so one can only hope the movie will be shown soon enough on the news cable station. What is most memorable about the film is the wide variety of nuggets you get by watching it. From the archival clips of Ebert’s most critically praised movies such as Bonnie & Clyde and Raging Bull to the interview subjects that shared the most fascinating aspects of Ebert’s life you may not have even known about him. Such as Chaz admitting for the first time on camera that she met Ebert in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene admitting that Siskel didn’t want to share his own impending death with Ebert despite their roller coaster friendship/ working relationship.
The film does give you an up close and personal journey with a couple who happen to be battling a rare and deadly disease. And it doesn’t get too graphically close into what Ebert actually experienced in his final few years, which if it did I know would turn off a lot of people from wanting to go see this movie. (Great narration provided by voice actor Stephen Stanton provides a great anecdote one after another in a similar cadence to Ebert’s own voice). What it does share is life’s intimate moments with viewers who may never have known that Ebert had a fulfilling life right until the very the end of his own life and that is something we should all be grateful to witness. If you love movies, i know you will love this movie.