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Review: Life Itself

July 11, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Life Itself Poster

Roger Ebert is one of the main reasons why I became a writer, and like so many of us in this field, his reviews are the sole inspiration behind my choice to become a film critic.  Because of this, Life Itself is somewhat ironically hard for me to write about.

Considering my personal connection to the main subject, I find myself struggling with whether to keep this as strictly a review of the movie, or allow this article to become yet another remembrance of Roger Ebert.  Do I synopsize the story by recounting the details of his life, or write about the film purely as an emotional experience?

Both seem like valid ways to discuss Life Itself, a documentary inspired by Roger Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, but words still fail me to describe the sheer power of seeing his life unfold onscreen.  I grew up watching his reviews and looked forward to them every week, and as I got older became fascinated with his life story as well, parts of which were revealed throughout his writing and blog posts, especially in his later years.

Roger Ebert was arguably the most important and easily the most famous film critic of all time, and when he passed away last year, I was heartbroken and found myself mourning the loss. But this deeply personal element is precisely what makes Life Itself so powerful, an extremely well made film that doesn’t shy away from the heartbreaking details of his untimely death, but also serves as a celebration of his life and the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity.  This is exactly what the title suggests; a film about being alive in all its pain and glory.

Through excerpts from his memoirs and interviews with his friends and colleagues, the film beautifully brings to screen the story of Roger Ebert’s life, beginning with his young start as a traditional reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, which led to his work reviewing movies.  This paved the way for his starring role on TV alongside Gene Siskel, his rival from the Chicago Tribune across the street, which rocketed them to fame, both for their easily accessible forms of film criticism and their infamous arguments.  But when their opinions aligned and they both loved a movie, their shared passion could barely be contained.

Roger Ebert revolutionized the craft of criticism, understanding the importance of writing to heighten our appreciation and understanding of filmmaking, but also the need to distill these opinions into a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, which is exactly what made him and Gene Siskel so legendary.  They were larger than life personalities who became celebrities, and some of the funniest moments in Life Itself come from the juxtaposition that Roger Ebert was the screenwriter behind Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the revelation that Gene Siskel used to hang out with Hugh Hefner.

The narration is nicely edited together over priceless archival footage and invaluable clips from classic episodes of At the Movies, providing an entertaining time capsule of this bygone era when people still relied on newspapers, and film critics could become famous.  But Life Itself also never shies away from the darker elements of their story, including Gene Siskel’s heartbreakingly sudden death that drastically altered the course of the show, and the unfortunate details of Roger Ebert’s own struggles with cancer that claimed his ability to eat and speak.

But the loss of his voice and ability to appear on television in some ways made Roger Ebert an even more prolific writer, starting a blog where he candidly and eloquently spoke about topics ranging from ideas on philosophy to the everyday challenges of living with an acquired disability.  I often still visit his website, which is in good hands with a fine selection of new writers, just to read his old articles and reviews.  He also appreciated good music, and because of this the film is appropriately set to a perfect jazz soundtrack, including unforgettable uses of Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

Through deeply moving interviews with his widow Chaz Ebert, whom he met through AA meetings and was the love of his life in every sense, as well as footage of them together in his final weeks, Life Itself introduces us to a different side of Roger Ebert.  A caring and sensitive side that made him so passionate about the movies he loved, to the point of mercilessly defending them against Gene Siskel.  Roger Ebert’s words could make or break a director and he understood this power, elevating the careers of filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani and even Martin Scorsese with his early appreciation of their work.

There is a beautiful serendipity then to the fact that Martin Scorsese produced Life Itself and the film is directed by Steve James, whose own career took off after Roger Ebert named his landmark documentary Hoop Dreams as the best movie of 1994.  The fact that Life Itself leaves us wanting to revisit the many films that Roger Ebert loved and championed over the years, including classics like Bonnie and Clyde and Raging Bull as well as independent pictures like Man Push Cart, is one of the things that I’m sure would have made him most proud.

Watching Life Itself is an inspiring and profoundly moving experience, and those are similar words that I would use to describe Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.  Although that film is a work of fiction shot over an expanse of years that concerns itself with a life that is just beginning, and Life Itself is a documentary about a life well lived that is reaching its natural end, both films capture something very deep about the human condition.  Roger Ebert knew better than anyone that these are equally important moments in life, the beginning and end of a circular journey, and I’m certain he would have loved both films.

Filming started just five months before Roger Ebert passed away, and it’s hard not to wonder how things might have turned out had he lived to the end of the production, and to see the finished project.  But this is a film that takes us through every emotion, confronting death with the same clearheaded honesty and even optimism that Roger Ebert exhibited, and I think it’s safe to say that Life Itself would have gotten two thumbs up.  There are just so many powerful and unforgettable scenes throughout the film, that it’s impossible not to offer my highest recommendation.

Because Life Itself is simply one of the most important films of the year.  This is a work of astonishing empathy that pays moving tribute to Roger Ebert, and leaves us with an even deeper appreciation of the amazing body of work that he left behind.  It’s also an entertaining film that helps us further understand the lasting importance of cinema as an art form.  But most importantly, Life Itself is a heartfelt look at love and how one life can touch so many other lives, even when such things seem impossible, which are the reasons why we even go to movies in the first place.

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