Sunday, July 13, 2014
Based on the memoir Life Itself: A Memoir, Life Itself is a documentary about the life and works one of the most revered film critics of the 20th Century in Roger Ebert. Directed by Steve James, the film looks into Ebert’s career as a film critic that included his notable partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel. The film also looks into the final months of Ebert’s life as he succumbed to the effects of thyroid cancer that eventually claimed him on April 4, 2013. Featuring appearances from filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, and many others including Ebert’s widow Chaz. The result is one of the most moving and exhilarating portraits of one of cinema’s great voices.
There is probably no film critic, aside from Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, who made a major impact for film criticism and film writing better than Roger Ebert in the second half of the 20th Century and in the early stages of the 21st Century. Yet, this film is about Ebert’s life not just a critic who championed films and filmmakers that a wide audience might’ve not known or heard of. It’s a film about the man himself who struggled with alcoholism until embracing sobriety in 1979 and the loving husband to his soul mate Chaz who would be there for him until the day he died. The film would move back and forth into Ebert’s life as a man and as a film critic but also in the final five months of his life as he was trying to recover from cancer that he had been battling for years as it would rob him of his voice and lower jaw.
Steve James’ direction is quite simple as he captures the final months of Ebert’s life as he spends that time in a hospital and rehab center while using his computer to talk and such. Chaz is a prominent figure in the film as she would comment everything as well as glimpse of Ebert’s step-children and grandchildren who were a major part of his life. Along with appearances from filmmakers like Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Gregory Nava, Ramin Bahrani (who would visit Ebert at the hospital), and Errol Morris who talked about Ebert’s importance in their work. There’s also interviews with friends and colleagues like film critics A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss as well as Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene.
Ebert’s relationship with Gene Siskel was a unique one where the two had very different personalities yet loved films as it was one of the reasons why their show At the Movies became so important to film criticism. Even as it helped expose smaller films while bring a different appeal that allowed a wide audience to see what they had to say. Martin Scorsese talks about their infamous review of The Color of Money which still hurts him to this day. There’s also the story about Richard Corliss taking criticism over Siskel and Ebert’s show as Corliss talks about that little feud. With David E. Simpson aiding James in the editing, the film showcases a lot of footage of the show including outtakes where Siskel and Ebert take jabs at each other but do it with a lot of love.
With help from cinematographer Dana Krupper, the film has a very simple yet vibrant look into the way James captures Ebert’s final months as he struggles with his rehab and regaining the ability to walk. James knows how not to infuse a lot of sentimentality to the film as there’s this mixture of humor and drama as well as the moment when Ebert dies. The film’s music by Joshua Abrams doesn’t drown things out as it is mostly low-key in its jazz music setting while the soundtrack also features some jazz music from the artists that Ebert loves as well as a poignant Leonard Cohen song that really says a lot about Ebert’s relationship with Chaz. Overall, James crafts a very delightful yet heartfelt film about a guy who loved a woman named Chaz, a guy named Gene, and cinema.
Life Itself is a magnificent film from Steve James about the life and work of Roger Ebert. The film isn’t just a very touching and engaging documentary about an influential film critic but a man who loved life no matter how hard it was in the final years of his life. Even as he gets testimonials from those he championed as well as colleagues who think of him as a brother. In the end, Life Itself is an incredibly moving and wondrous film from Steve James.
© thevoid99 2014