One of the highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a documentary on one of its most famous patrons.
“Life Itself” is a celebration of the life of Roger Ebert, one of the best-known and longest-tenured film critics to ever take notes in a darkened movie theater. At times it is hard to watch, but it has plenty of smiles in store for longtime movie fans.
“Life Itself” celebrates the voice of a man who was unable to speak at all in his final years. The documentary intercuts passages focusing on selections from his 2011 memoir of the same name (often narrated by Ebert himself) with footage shot in the months before Ebert’s death last year. The footage is shot by Steve James, who also directed “Hoop Dreams,” another popular Sundance documentary. The footage is fortunate in its timing, even if it can be hard to watch. In the final years of his life, Ebert fought cancer and lost his jaw in the process. The result is some unflinching footage of a marred Ebert who is unable to speak or eat without a lower jaw but whose enthusiastic eyes almost make up for the abilities he has lost.
Ebert’s story almost doubles as a narrative for contemporary cinema itself. He took over as critic for the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1960s, around the same time anti-hero films such as “Bonnie and Clyde” were changing the landscape of modern Hollywood. “Life Itself” takes time to explore Ebert’s relationships with filmmakers like Russ Meyer and Martin Scorsese, veering from camp (Ebert wrote the screenplay for Meyer’s infamous “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) to heartwarming (Ebert’s example and persistent support helped Scorsese face down his own substance-abuse issues).
Eventually the narrative builds to his famous partnership with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel. Predictably, “Life Itself” puts a special focus on this tenuous relationship. Initially competitors who hardly exchanged a word, the years Siskel and Ebert spent on television together eventually formed a fond brotherhood between the critics, even if some priceless behind-the-scenes clips prove their tension never completely went away. Siskel died years before Ebert, which gives “Life Itself” a feeling of closure on a major part of Americana beyond its subject critic alone.
Later on, “Life Itself” spends a generous amount of time on Ebert’s relationship with his wife, Chaz, the woman who convinced the longtime bachelor to finally retire his jersey. Some of her reaction shots and interview segments provide the most touching moments of the film.
James and Ebert obviously have a close relationship, but the director doesn’t hold back from showing Ebert in his more unflattering moments. James’ camera follows him through sessions of physical therapy and feeding where he is barely able to move, and his frustration is obvious. James isn’t interested in giving viewers the dirt on his subject, but his loving hand still gives an honest portrayal, including stretches touching on Ebert’s alcoholism and other struggles. Still, even these scenes have a way of endearing the viewer to the film’s subject.
While “Life Itself” falls more into the category of “posthumous celebration” than “in-depth documentary,” it does an excellent job of painting a visual portrait of a man who was often polarizing, yet almost universally admired. Whether you agreed with his take on a movie or not, you could never doubt the passion or enthusiasm he held for his work. “Life Itself” nails that passion perfectly.
“Life Itself” is not rated but nudges into R-rated territory with some profanity (including three uses of the F-word) and some brief flashes of nudity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.