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Shrewsbury, Massachusetts-Over a year ago, the world lost one of its greatest most avid voices. From his reviews in the Chicago Sun Times to his television series, Roger Ebert popularized film criticism and was one of its greatest advocates. Some time before his death in April 2013, Steve James, acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams, was working on a documentary chronicling Ebert’s life that has just been hitting on demand sites and theaters everywhere.
It’s no lie that Roger Ebert loved to talk about the movies. What started as an appointment as film critic of the Chicago Sun Times in 1967, turned into a lifelong career that changed the industry of film criticism, bringing it into the mainstream. James follows Ebert not only looking back at his career, but a glimpse into his final days battling the cancer that robbed him of his voice. That never stopped Ebert from loving film and the only thing he loved more than that: life itself.
Life Itself is a heart-wrenching and well-done documentary celebrating the life of a man who at times seemed larger than life. James spends time with not only Scorsese and Werner Herzog, but also Ebert’s close friends and colleagues. James does a remarkable job of not only praising Ebert, but also exposing some of the darker aspects of Ebert’s persona and ego. James presents a fair portrait of Ebert and that makes you all the more invested in his struggle.
The most endearing pieces of the film come from the final days of Ebert. Those moments of recovery in the hospital and the struggle Ebert faced every day trying to communicate, but at times never seemed to lose his spirit. That spirit is shown through Ebert’s wife Chaz, who stands by her man with a determination and love that is beautiful to see.
Ebert’s voice was something unseen before in film criticism and his absence leaves a massive hole. Without his work through print or with Gene Siskel, people like me, or Bob Chipman, or any Internet critics would have jobs. Filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani or Ava DuVernay would be as well known without him. Folks like Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris changed things and it’s heartbreaking to see them gone. Thus, Life Itself becomes not just a celebration of Ebert, but also the industry he made influential.
Life Itself is a lovely remembrance of one of the biggest voices in the film industry. Despite all that came in his way, he never faltered in finding a way to make his voice heard. It’s endearing and heartwarming to see that dedication shown the way he loved: on the big screen. Though Ebert may be gone, his legacy is not forgotten and for that I say “Two thumbs up.”
Life Itself is available for on demand streaming in various outlets such as iTunes, and Amazon as well as playing at the West Newton Cinema.