Roger Ebert saw a lot of documentaries during his reign as the world’s most renowned movie critic, and it’s fitting that one of the last things he did in his life was take part in a documentary that will stand as one of 2014’s best.
Life Itself gives us the full story on Ebert, covering the days before he started writing about movies for a living, his Pulitzer Prize-winning career as a critic, and his painful yet amazingly graceful last days.
Director Steve James had permission to film Ebert in hospital rooms as he battled cancer. It’s hard to watch what Ebert is going through, but it’s inspiring to see how Ebert handled his obstacles. Sure, James probably shows only some of the more pleasant, upbeat footage, but Ebert’s passion for life was most genuine, and no trick editing is required to show us that.
The film touches upon two very important partnerships in Ebert’s life: his marriage to Chaz Ebert (who appears often in the film), and his work with the late Gene Siskel.
While watching the movie, it seems as if you are hearing the voice of Roger Ebert narrating. You might think Ebert recorded an audio book of his biography, and that’s what James is using for this narration. That’s not the case. Ebert’s book came out in 2011, and by then, Roger had already lost his voice. That voice you are hearing is that of an impressionist by the name of Stephen Stanton. The resemblance is incredible, as if Roger somehow found his voice again in time to tell us his story. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better vocal doubling. Stanton is some kind of genius.
Ebert worked voraciously up until his death. We see him feverishly typing away on his laptop as he awaits some sort of treatment. The story is not told chronologically, but it is impeccably structured, featuring interviews with Chaz, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and others.
While the film is always interesting, it is at its most potent when dealing with the Siskel/Ebert relationship. The movie includes the infamous footage of the boys verbally chastising each other while taping promos, and then follows up with the two goofing around while doing the same thing.
It’s funny as hell to see them during one of their first shows in the 1970s, with Ebert wearing a terrible plaid jacket, and Siskel sporting an atrocious moustache. They were stiff and quite awful when they started out. (Siskel was slightly more comfortable on camera.) They obviously found their way. The film doesn’t touch upon Ebert’s work with other critics (such as Richard Roeper) after Siskel’s passing. That was the right call.
I’m a big Ebert fan. I read him religiously during my formative years; at one point, I almost always knew the star ratings he gave movies. I watched Ebert and Siskel every week, through their show’s many incarnations. Their reviews were often more enjoyable than the movies that inspired them.
It stings a bit to realize they are both gone. I used to love the way Siskel would go at Ebert on the show, but I always thought Ebert had the intellectual edge. Hey, he had that Pulitzer.
Life Itself is sweet, scary, funny, sad and surprisingly entertaining and uplifting. It’s also revealing (I didn’t know he was an alcoholic), uncompromising (some of the medical moments are very hard to watch) and brutally honest.
While I would give it my highest endorsement, I’m thinking Ebert would’ve given it 3 1/2 stars out of 4.
Hey … he was a tough critic.
Life Itself is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565) and the Cinemas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430). It’s also available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com, and video on demand.