It's important in the world of the cinema to embrace how a movie genuinely makes you feel as watch unfold because that is just as important as the structure, the story, the cinematography and everything else in-between. "Life Itself" isn't the kind of documentary that shines any new light as it looks at the life and times of noted film critic and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Roger Ebert, but it does remind us of what a champion of the moving image he was as he inspired so many of us to find our own voice when discuss or deconstructing the art of filmmaking.
In 2013, we lost a great unsung scholar, we lost one of the most famous thumbs in the movie business, we lost Roger Ebert, the man who was arguably the nation’s best-known and most influential movie critic. Based on his memoir of the same name, Life Itself recounts Ebert’s fascinating and flawed journey, from politicized school newspaperman, to Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, to Pulitzer Prize winner, to television household name, to finding love at 50, an age when most people have given up on the concept, and finally his “final act” as a major voice on the Internet when he could no longer physically speak and had to find new ways to let his voice get out there.
It's not ground breaking or doing anything genuinely new, but "Life Itself" is such a genuine and intimate portrait not only of one man's love of the movies but how his respect for the entire process surpasses issues that surround his own mortality.
Director Steve James went into this project not necessarily with any direct purpose but he knew that Ebert would make a fantastic subject and he certainly wasn't wrong. Ebert was a man who lived life, especially in his earlier years and there is just something so infectious about it to watch unfold. James never mourns or puts his subject on a pedestal, he's flawed, somewhat petulant but also brilliant as his mere presence on the academic side of film criticism, is seemingly there to balance out the system and that is all that he ever truly wanted.
Ebert's quote at the beginning of the film, I was born inside the movie of my life...I don't remember how I got into the movie but it continues to entertain me rings so true for this entire movie. As much as Ebert loved the spotlight and loved talking and writing about movies, he loved sharing it and encouraging others to do the same, not only did he influence a generation of critics on the internet today (including yours truly) but he influenced filmmakers. He encouraged a process that was collaborative and even the most scathing reviews that he ever wrote were never bile for the sake bile, he was always making a clear and straight forward point that appealed to the theorists and to common marketplace, it's part of the reason why he was so popular and beloved.
James showed Ebert's love and reverence for film, but also his love for his relationships as well. The relationship between Siskel & Ebert was formative and important to both men and he gives us a clear look at how there simply may not have been one without the other. Along with Siskel, the other key player in his life was the love for his wife Chaz. Finding love later in life changed , but it changed him for the better and transformed from a character in a movie to a champion for all movies.
His personal life and career are kept in careful balance as we see a moment in the film where even Roger himself doesn't want to let his story take over the movie that Steve James is trying to tell. That's how Roger lived his life as his respect for the process was so great that he would fight for it to his last dying breath. His relationship defined who the man was, be it with film, with Gene Siskel or with Chaz, these were all inexorable parts of what made him so special.
It could be argued that more should have been shown about his influence on critical film analysis and less on his story and personal history but "Life Itself" is exactly what it needed to be. It was about a guy who found his voice and more than anything wanted to make sure that he was never boring. Thumbs up to Roger on a life and a legacy succeeded.
5 out of 5 stars.
"Life Itself" is now playing in Toronto, Montreal & Ottawa, please check with local listings for show times.