“In the past 25 years I have probably seen 10,000 movies and reviewed 6,000 of them. I have forgotten most of them, I hope, but I remember those worth remembering, and they are all on the same shelf in my mind.” – Roger Ebert, Life itself (2014).
Roger Joseph Ebert is possibly the one and only influence I have when it comes to my work in film criticism and general journalism. Who can blame me, really? He was a pioneer when it came down to the early days of critical analysis in film. It should come as no surprise then that I had a great amount of interest in watching his documentary, Life itself. The interest for this documentary most probably stemmed from that aforementioned influence he has had on my path to becoming a film critic. For me, personally, Life itself is a fitting send off for the greatest film critic that ever lived.
I have never reviewed a documentary before. If I’m honest I never planned on it, nor do I plan to do another documentary after this. But there was something about this documentary that deserved to be reviewed. A documentary all about the man that shaped the way film journalism is carried out. Needless to say, the documentary delivers in more ways than one. My expectations for this documentary were astronomically high, and somehow it meets the standards I set.
Director Steve James sets out on creating a narrative that will resonate with the passing viewer. Something that can apply to those who may not know very much of Ebert, but also can be utilised by someone who knows the in’s and outs of his award winning work. The balance is perfect, somehow managing to tackle huge aspects of Ebert’s life and cramming them into a two hour documentary was no easy feat. Yet here and throughout the two hours was something amazing, you get a real feel for his work.
We are very vividly shown the intricate workings of his career. Although I would have enjoyed seeing how Ebert actually reviewed his films, the content throughout was more than intriguing. Although the film does feature his last few months of life, there’s a very heavy leaning towards looking at his career as a whole. It’s more a memoir than a real time documentary. Obviously because of this the film brings up his previous works with other film critic, Gene Siskel. At first I thought the documentary was going to just rehash the same few bits and pieces we’ve been told over the years. Nothing of the sort came from these scenes. It was refreshing and gave new insights and information on a topic I thought I was well read on.
I cried five different times at this documentary for five different reasons. You see Ebert dealing with his illness in stride. It’s admirable and emotional to see how his daily life works, something about it just got to me. Seeing him attempt to regain his strength is honestly heartbreaking too, especially the scenes of therapy. By far the most upsetting moment of the documentary is when his wife, Chaz Ebert, recalls his death in an interview.
What I find specifically admirable about the documentary as a whole is that it is tasteful. It doesn’t try and stir controversy that was never there or create new drama. As a piece of film it merely looks back and celebrates the life of Roger Ebert and how his career impacted film. This is more often than not shown through a number of interviews with directors he influenced, including Martin Scorsese. Because of these talking heads you may believe that this documentary will become a tribute show, but it doesn’t. Yes, it was made to tribute the life of Ebert, but they actually add to the film. They give information that I and many others had never heard.
A number of talking head interviews are presented throughout with family, friends and colleagues of both Ebert and also Gene Siskel. Obviously one of the main features of the documentary was going to be the animosity between the two critics. But the way it’s presented, it makes sure to have you take home the real message, that they were friends. A good documentary always makes you learn. I didn’t know that Ebert had written the screenplay for a film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Nor did I know that he had struggled with alcoholism. These aspects of the documentary are vividly pictured and highlighted very well throughout.
Aside from crying though, Life itself does attempt to make you feel some other emotions. I did laugh a few times and there were some genuinely heartwarming moments throughout the run-time. Seeing Ebert’s overall passion for film was enlightening and truly inspiring. It really was a testament to the man’s career. Even when confined to a bed he was still working. The director of the piece asks a number of questions through email and as the film progresses we see more and more.
Throughout the documentary we see a number of scenes from Ebert living in hospital. There’s something about him as a person that is truly just warming and genuinely calming. I noted a few times throughout that he’s a thoroughly optimistic person, and that’s definitely something to take into account both when watching this documentary and reading his reviews. As far as documentaries go it isn’t afraid to tackle some of the larger topics and even come up with some of it’s own theories. I don’t want to go into too much detail as to what they are, but some of them are excellent.
Documentaries should do one thing and one thing only, they should teach you something. They should inspire you to do something that you would have initially been hesitant to do. For me, seeing Ebert work no matter what his condition was truly admirable and remarkable. Like I said previously, Ebert is a heavy influence on my career, the impact he had is impossible to measure. To see him work whatever his condition was inspiring to me. Reviews are almost always personal reflections, and to me this documentary encapsulates everything I aspire to be as a film critic.
There’s something so raw and emotional about this documentary that just works so well. Like I mentioned previously, it’s a very respectful and tasteful piece. The content is handled with a genuine care. As a piece it knows when to pull on your heartstrings. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll more than likely be left with a feeling of satisfaction. If you have any interest or have even heard the name Roger Ebert then I cannot recommend this enough. As Ebert himself would say; “Two thumbs up”.