Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
Running Time: 118 min
BBFC Certificate: E
When Roger Ebert died back in 2013, the movie blogosphere was awash with tributes to one of the world’s most known and loved film critics. You may have noticed I didn’t join in, but I must admit I’m not as familiar with his work as most. I knew who he was and occasionally checked reviews on his site when linked through from the IMDB, but I wasn’t a regular reader of his blog and his famous TV show with Gene Siskel didn’t air in the UK. I tended to find his reviews reliable though and all the love sent out after his death compelled me to find out more about the man, so I was very keen to watch Life Itself, Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert released last year. Luckily Dogwoof have given the film a DVD release in the UK and I was sent a screener to review.
A good chunk of Life Itself is made up of the typical biography/tribute style of documentary, looking into Ebert’s past and the progression of his career. We are told about his early days as the editor of his university newspaper where he wasn’t afraid to make his views known and how he didn’t actually seek out the job of film critic at the Chicago Sun Times, it was just kind of lumped on him. Ebert spent the last 11 years of his life fighting cancer so of course this is explored in the film. A lot is said about his work and relationship with Siskel too. This side of the documentary is refreshingly frank, showing how they had more than their share of ‘creative differences’. Some wonderfully acidic outtakes are shown of the two trying to record adverts for the show and throwing vicious barbs at each other. A later clip shows some more friendly banter though, so the film eventually suggests a mutual admiration between the two critics, both of whom were taken by battles against cancer.
What gives the film an extra dimension though is the fact that James planned the documentary alongside Ebert whilst he was still living. This allowed the director close personal access to the writer right up to his death, which neither of them imagined would come during the shoot (at least not when they were getting started. This personal touch gives the film much more poignancy and depth than your average tribute fluff piece. The audience get to see the strength of his wonderful wife Chaz as well as the hardships and frustrations of life living without being able to speak or eat (a large amount of tissue and bone in his throat and jaw had been removed). In a couple of scenes we see the wholly unglamorous and painful suction process for instance, which he had to endure regularly.
In general it’s a fairly warts and all affair, with Ebert not being made out to be a total saint. As well as discussing his drinking problems during the first half of his life, his work on Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gets a bashing and you get quotes like “he’s a nice guy, but not that nice”. My favourite quote wasn’t aimed at Ebert though, with an interviewee answering a question about a wave of famous critics arriving on the scene with “fuck Pauline Kael”.
Ebert’s personality made it hard not to love the man though. Even during the later stages of his life, when he had endured so much pain and suffering, he was still full of jokes and cheer (alongside his famous thumbs up). Even though he wasn’t afraid of letting his opinions be heard, Ebert never seemed to come across as being an arsehole. He was so eloquent and intelligent in his writing without sounding pompous. His criticism was very accessible, which is likely why he became so popular, although it caused him to be a target for some of his more ‘high brow’ contemporaries.
Some elements of the documentary’s presentation aren’t perfect, largely the sound and music. The score was bit a ‘stock’ to me and there are a few brief unnecessary sound effects used here and there. It’s a minor complaint about a refreshingly personal view of a fascinating figure though, which wisely lets the man himself be an active participant in making and featuring in the film. It certainly made me want to become better acquainted with his writing, which is always the mark of a decent tribute.
Life Itself is released on DVD on 23rd February in the UK by Dogwoof. The picture and audio quality was fine. Included on the DVD are a decent collection of deleted scenes and extended interviews as well as an interview with director Steve James.