Review: Life Itself (2014)

A flawed, but immensely heartfelt documentary; a loving goodbye to a man who taught the world so much about cinema for so many years.

On April 4, 2013, Roger Joseph Ebert, long-time film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, passed away from a long battle with cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. Ebert was the film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and continued to write up until his death. But before his death, Roger and his wife, Chaz, along with Steve James, began work on a documentary on Ebert’s long and illustrious career, itself based on Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, which has now become that documentary.

It’s very difficult to criticise a documentary like this – one that so intimately explores the life of a man – without the author verging on a criticism of that man’s life. Likewise, there is also the urge to go the other direction and criticise the film on its technical merits alone, and I don’t think that’s right either. You can’t judge a film like this without taking into account the emotions surrounding the subject matter, because those emotions are so connected to the subject matter that you can’t separate one from the other.

Life Itself is very much a no-nonsense documentary; it never shies away from showing the humorous and less than graceful side of Ebert. At numerous points we’re told by his friends and family that Roger probably took the job to write the script for The Valley of the Dolls (1967) because, based on his experience with Russ Meyer films, he was sure that huge-breasted women were going to be involved in the production, or, in his own words, the fact that he went to a convention for ten years ‘to get laid’, or the often vitriolic nature of his and Gene Siskel’s relationship, or the fact that he was an alcoholic.

This adds colour to the documentary, but it also adds power and heart, especially after the first half when the documentary starts to discuss the numerous health problems that Ebert endured in his later years. In fact, I’d say the documentary’s most powerful moments come near the end when, in the days approaching Ebert’s death, we learn from Chaz Ebert that Roger signed the DNR form when he was alone, and when she asked him about it, he replied, ‘I’m ready to go. I’ve had a beautiful life. I’m ready to go. Please let me go.’

But with this honesty about pain also comes honesty about success and triumph over adversity. We’re never allowed to forget that as a young man in college while working for the Chicago Illini, Ebert stopped the presses when he saw an awkwardly presented advertisement in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, or the fact that Ebert made the conscious choice to walk away from his alcoholism and quit drinking cold turkey on the spot and never drank again, or the fact that from the moment he married Chaz in 1992, he was a happy family man.

The effect of showing us both sides of the coin, the good parts and the bad, is the implication of authenticity. We believe what it’s telling us. Is this a trick? I don’t think so. I think we’re being treated to a very authentic representation of a man, the veritable ‘soldier of cinema’ himself. And that endears the documentary to me. I like authenticity, even if that authenticity requires sentimentality.

Another thing that endears the documentary to me is its use of found material, how it opens with footage taken from the dedication ceremony at the start of the first Ebertfest after Roger’s death and how it uses a montage of black and white photographs – personal and private items – in order to contextualise the narration on screen. I liked how it used footage from the films that Roger reviewed, like Bonnie and Clyde, to try to help us to see what Roger saw in these films, and I liked how they used B-roll footage of Siskel & Ebert & The Movies to show you just how the relationship between Siskel and Ebert worked. I also liked that it used narration from Life Itself – words from Roger himself. It all adds authenticity.

And there are some beautiful shots in this documentary, of both Chicago, the Cannes Film Festival (through found footage), and of the city of Chicago. From a technical standpoint, the film is beautiful, with a lot of great shots and excellent diegetic music – including the now sadly often forgotten Dave Brubeck piece Take Five – there’s a lot to like here.

But unfortunately, while there is a lot to like about Life Itself, it does have some flaws, and you can’t ignore the fact that it does drag after about an hour and only seems to pick up again roughly twenty minutes before the end of the film. But I’m not going to cast blame on the director, or anyone else for this; most of the editing was done after Ebert’s death, and it would make sense that afterwards they’d want to tell as much of Ebert’s story as possible, even at the extent of brevity. Is it as succinct as it could have been? No, but I think that it’s still better. Life Itself is a celebration of Ebert’s life and career, and to leave something out would have been a disservice to him. And so, ultimately, while I can’t say that Life Itself is a perfect documentary, it is an enjoyable one. It’s probably the best way look at Ebert’s life, in his own words, interpreted by those who knew and loved him best.

Now that I’ve watched it, I’m left with a sadness and a feeling that something is missing from the world that used to be in the background. To paraphrase Doug Walker, it really breaks my heart that he’s gone, but I’m immensely happy that he was here because he taught us – not only the people who read his columns and watched his show, but the people who were inspired by the people who did – so much about cinema and what the cinematic experience really means.

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