Life Itself is a deeply emotional documentary film about the life, times and passion of the late Roger Ebert. Until he died a year ago of cancer, Ebert was America’s most famous and perhaps also most influential film critic, although that latter status is hard to measure, even with a thumb.
Documentary filmmaker Steve James — whom Ebert lionized for his exceptional 1994 basketball doc Hoop Dreams — does take a fine measure of the man. James does so with grace and honesty and integrity and a lot of tenderness. I defy anyone to watch Life Itself (named after Ebert’s candid autobiography) without shedding a tear. The waterworks are sometimes streamed over the wrinkles inspired by laughter. The film is witty, like Ebert was, and like the film’s executive producer and commentator Martin Scorsese still is. “He is a nice guy,” one friend says mischievously, “but he’s not that nice!” Humour helps leaven the emotional weight of watching Ebert move inexorably towards his death on April 4, 2013.
With Ebert’s blessing and encouragement, Life Itself is a warts-and-all look at how the son of an Illinois electrician and housewife became a prolific writer who spent 46 years as the film critic at the Chicago Sun Times. There is a lot of information and insight embedded in the film that I knew little about, although I had been a casual and warm friend of Roger since the 1970s — and of his extraordinary wife Chaz Ebert since they married in 1992 (one of the most transformational events in Roger’s tumultuous life). So the doc seems fresh, even in Ebert’s circle.
Just as critically, Life Itself sets the Ebert story against the background canvas of American film culture: what is it, what it is evolving into and how people access and more deeply understand it. In that sense, the documentary can be enjoyed by people who care little or know nothing about Roger Ebert. Not as a student paper editor in his youth or as a critic, blogger, screenwriter, human rights activist, reformed alcoholic and loving husband and devoted stepfather in his adult years.
My only real criticism of Life Itself is that James spends a little too much time on having other critics discuss the issue of film criticism. To me, as a film critic, it sounds like insider stuff that the wider public might not give a toss about. But maybe I am just being churlish because that chatter is part of my own life and I am sick of it.
Better are moments when Ebert, who could be arrogant and outspoken about his own opinions, paradoxically helped to democratize film criticism by inviting the public to join in. His frame-by-frame sessions about classic films are legendary, and referenced here. So are intensely private moments, especially with Chaz and their friends, that help explain how he related to the public.
Life Itself opens Friday in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, with Chaz Ebert in attendance for an introduction and a Q&A (for the 7 p.m. screening only).