“I was born inside the movie of my life . . . I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” – Roger Ebert
August 8th, 2014: Director Steve James is more than happy to pay it forward. After years of benefiting from the power of Roger Ebert reviews, it is fitting that this documentary filmmaker is now capturing the last five months in the life of a film critic icon. By undertaking this ambitious filming schedule in the face of diminishing returns from Ebert’s failing health, each word, each moment, each story becomes something to savour. By giving validation to what is possible in the film milieu, Ebert, together with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel have carved out a legacy the likes of which will not soon be repeated.
A sweeping and sentimental life montage fronts the opening chapter of James’s “Life Itself”, set to a jazzy standard that harkens back to yesteryear. The one two punch of writing and publishing became an over-arching theme in Ebert’s life that started as the pre-teen publisher of the Washington Street News in Urbana, Illinois. Coming from working class roots, Ebert’s yearning for the Ivy of Harvard eventually morphed into the blue and orange of the University of Illinois. With his single minded literary focus being the high water mark throughout his life, becoming Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Illini was always in his purview. Punching well above his weight, like a kid taking control of an adult situation, Ebert became the voice of outrage on campus during the early 60’s. A series of fortuitous events after being accepted into the PhD program in English lead him to the rank-and-file position of film critic for the Chicago Sun Times in 1967.
His hard charging early years, from which O’Rourke’s Tavern on North Avenue in Chicago was both a blessing and a curse, served as a critical chapter in Ebert’s evolution to exorcise personal demons. James saturates the narrative with poignant anecdotes from literary colleagues, endless stills from festival travels around the world and family portraits. In a turn of pure genius, the Ebert voiceover dilemma, made ever more impossible by his accelerated head and jaw cancer, is resolved by having all memoir voiceovers read by Stephen Stanton, a veritable Ebert voice match. Thus filling in the storyline with that unique cadence we have come to trust in film criticism.
Life Itself is just that and we are given an ALL ACCESS movie pass into the daedalian world of Roger Ebert. That pass wouldn’t be complete without the sometimes friendly, sometimes feh relationship of fellow critic Gene Siskel. This Yale matriculated, Hollywood connected critic could not have been more different and James goes to great lengths in fleshing this out. But, the cachet and extended media glare that graced Ebert after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975 during his Sun Times tenure helped up his class cred in the face of the made Siskel.
We witness the evolution of the show from its early incarnation titled, “Opening Soon . . . at a Theatre Near You” replete with stilted wooden delivery, bad grooming habits and god awful attire that was a friend to no one, right through to the heydays of Siskel & Ebert at the height of their game where two thumbs up or down could make or break a movie. When things were good they were really good. Regularly feted on talk shows like Carson, Letterman and Oprah, the power duo became the brand of choice for the uninformed masses. But, when things broke down which often did between these two rogues, the air would not only turn toxic but the combative criticism made it stay that way. For audiences, these weekly tussles became the stuff of legend as two critics, knee deep in the art of the sell, tried to sway the other with logic and reasoning. Nowhere was this more evident than the uneasy Thriller Week Outtakes that had both hurling dead pan barbs between takes. Think Laurel & Hardy with each holding a death wish manifestoes for the other.
On those rare occasions when both found common ground on a film, a warming calm would wash anew like long lost friends reuniting. When that civility was further extended, Ebert’s keen eye for nurturing new filmmakers combines with positive reviews were the catalyst that gave life to the early works of fledgling directors such as Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Michael Moore to name a few. After screening Scorsese’s 1967 film, “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”, Ebert announced he would be the next American Fellini within the decade. Scorsese was not far off. Directing his cinematic opus, “Raging Bull” in 1980 would become that long awaited masterpiece. Creating cleaver bits of nostalgia buy superimposing the text and voiceover segments of Ebert’s reviews onto iconic movie clips was an effective bit of editing that added depth within the storyline.
“In the past 25 years I have probably seen 10,000 movies and reviewed 6,000 of them. I have forgotten most of them I hope. But I remember those worth remembering, they are on the same shelf in my mind.” – Roger Ebert
The power of true love and companionship found Roger late in life in the form of Chaz. Chaz was that rock that Ebert never had but always needed. Inter-racial acceptance by extended family members became an afterthought as family vacations captured the true essence of their love. That love would be tested and grow even larger during the third act of his life as the vessel that held such knowledge, wealth and power started its torturous journey home. Ebert’s daily medical drama hits the strongest emotional chord in the movie. The ebb and flow of new treatment regiments would take their toll, none greater than the cringe inducing throat suction procedures eliciting a pain on Ebert that was palpable.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5: Part personal journey, part life in review, part medical drama and part brothers in arms, Life Itself is more than the story of one man. Heritage proud but far from settling for what is, Roger Ebert always fought for what should be. Forty-six years ago he became the critic for the Chicago Sun Times and that’s when the fight began. He fought for directors and actors who laid down breakthrough performances that demanded validation; he fought for and elevated film criticism as something to aspire; he fought for and added to the social commentary of life; he fought for and found love that completed him and in the end he fought for his life.
Life Itself couldn’t have been more of a departure from the director who gave us the acclaimed 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams and more recently, The Interrupters. Intimate in its portrayal, James’s quiet observations capture the dignity and respect of one of the most powerful voices in America cinema. And even when his voice was silenced, social media platforms move in to give a voice to the voiceless. With an easy listening jazzy score to supplement the narrative, Life Itself pulled back the veil on a life we though we knew to give us so much more.
For Roger Ebert, the curtain of life will forever stay open.
• The first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1975.
• The only film critic with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
• Named honorary life member of the Directors’ Guild of America.
• Received a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Screenwriters’ Guild.
• Received an honorary degrees from the American Film Institute and the University of Colorado at Boulder
Genre: Documentary, Biography
Release Date: July 4th, 2014
Director: Steve James
Writer: Roger Ebert – based on the Memoir, Life Itself
Memoir Voice of Roger Ebert: Stephen Stanton
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
Executive Producers: Martin Scorsese, Martin Mitten, Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn, Courtney Sexton, Kat White, Steven Zaillian, Michael W. Ferro Jr.
Runtime: 120 Minutes
Cast: Josh Golden, Jonathan Rosenbaum, William Nack, Roger Simon, John McHugh, Rick Kogan, Bruce Elliott, Thea Faum, Donna La Pietra, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Martin Scorsese, Howie Movshovitz, Chaz Ebert, Raven Evans, Laura Emerick, Tom McNamee, Marlene Iglitzen, Gregory Nava, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrami, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, Nancy De Los Santos-Reza