REVIEW: LIFE ITSELF ****
Many people knew Roger Ebert from his show with Gene Siskel, "At the Movies," which ran in various forms for 24 years. When Mr. Siskel passed away in 1999, from complications following surgery for a brain tumor, Mr. Ebert continued the show with various other critics (finally settling on fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper). I can remember looking forward to seeing "Siskel & Ebert" every week. They always had something interesting to say, often reviewed at least one movie you wouldn't hear about otherwise and, of course, the two of them just might get into a heated argument over their opinions on something they were reviewing.
Those days are long gone now. Ebert tried to keep the show going as long as he could, even after he could no longer fully participate in the on-air presentation himself. Siskel and Ebert remain the only film critics who successfully used the medium of television to bring their brand of criticism to national prominence.
The documentary Life Itself is a film begun by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) with the collaboration of Roger Ebert, and his wife Chaz, all of them understanding that Mr. Ebert might not be around when the final product was completed. It covers a lot of ground, telling his story of growing up and becoming a journalist.
We learn where he gained his outlook on the world (dad was a hard worker and a Democrat; Mom was a housewife). There are accounts of how his professional relationship with Gene Siskel evolved over the years. Friends and colleagues tell us how deeply entrenched his alcoholism was, and how he could sometimes be arrogant or egotistical. What's refreshing is that we see and hear Ebert, himself, on these subjects.
There are funny and insightful stories, like the time he was doing a seminar on film and a student asked him why people should listen to him. He simply stated he was appointed film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, and turned the question on the student by asking "would you want to listen to you?" Or his unlikely friendship and work with controversial film maker Russ Meyer, for whom Mr. Ebert wrote "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."
Director James covers a lot of material, and weaves it all together with interviews. What makes this film so moving, and even fascinating, is witnessing Roger Ebert in his final days after his own battle with cancer. It is clear how loving and inter-dependent his relationship with his wife Chaz was. How apparent it is that he struggled to make every day count, and mean something after all he'd been through, is very touching. Life Itself shows us how one man led a full life and how valuable Roger Ebert was to the world of film.