Roger Ebert’s career explored in stellar documentary, ‘Life Itself’

Roger Ebert in his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times
Roger Ebert in his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times

Life Itself takes its name from the memoir with the same title penned by the late Roger Ebert.  Ebert’s book was released back in 2011 and he was the one who first announced that it would become a documentary film.

I have to admit to feeling a little guilt after I saw the film.   Back in December of 2012, I took issue with a review that Mr. Ebert had published.  Not with his opinion of the film, we are all entitled to our opinion on a movie.  My issue was that in describing the film he got major plot points completely wrong.  The piece I wrote about this was not unkind to the man, was accurate and on point.  Yet I still feel a twinge of guilt after having been critical of perhaps the best known film critic ever.

Roger Ebert was and is an inspiration to me, and countless others.  He was a reporter first, and got the job as film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times without applying for it.  When the incumbent left the job in 1967, it was assigned to him.  At that point he stopped his pursuit of a doctoral degree at the University of Chicago to focus on his new position.

Noted film criticPauline Kael called some of Ebert’s early reviews “the best film criticism being done in American newspapers today.”  Ebert expanded outward from being the critic at the Sun-Times, teaching film and then making the move that really put him on the map, hosting a film review show on television.

Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz in 'Life Itself'
Roger Ebert and his wife Chaz in ‘Life Itself’

The documentary Life Itself does much more than show us the career of perhaps the world’s most famous film critic.  It details his origins, the events that shaped his life, and in an honest, open fashion, the illness that ultimately took this genius from us.  Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) clearly worked tirelessly to make this movie.  We see how he had to do most of his interviewing of Roger Ebert via email, since Ebert lost the ability to speak in 2006 due to cancer.  The choice of James to do this film may have a connection to the fact that in 1994, a terrific year for film, Ebert chose Hoop Dreams as the best movie of the year.  Not the best documentary film of the year, the best film of the year period.

Roger Ebert married late in life and Life Itself details his amazing wife, Chaz.  It also has great outtakes from Siskel and Ebert At The Movies, and explores his very complicated relationship with Gene Siskel.  We gain some insight into his life as well, mostly from commentary provided by his widow, Marlene Iglitzen.

Life Itself isn’t just a great documentary film, it’s a great movie overall; much like Hoop Dreams was.  Steve James has a gift for taking even the most mundane moment from a person’s reality and making it impossibly interesting.  Don’t miss this.

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