In 2013, we lost the most influential film critic in the world. Roger Ebert passed away, but left behind a brilliant legacy of film criticism as well as his influence seen today with film critics on YouTube for example. His legacy and influence is best shown though in a documentary based on his memoir, ‘Life Itself’. The film uses footage of the last few months of Ebert’s life, along with interviews with such people as Chaz Ebert and Martin Scorsese and archive footage from his past with Gene Siskel. This is an amazing documentary that details Ebert’s life and impact on the world. Director Steve James does a flawless job with this film making it such a personal piece, both for Roger and Steve.
What really propels this film and makes it the beautiful tribute to Ebert it is is the amount of emotion put into the film. This is shown in so many ways. Not only do we get to see these last few months of Roger’s life and how his condition has impacted himself and the people around him, but we also get to see how his work has impacted people. This is best shown in three scenes. This includes scenes with directors Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani discussing how overwhelmed they were to see Ebert give their films rave reviews, especially when DuVernay met Roger earlier in her life and Ramin saw Roger at a Sundance screening of his film. These stories beautifully show the impact Ebert had on them. Another fantastic scene in the film involves Martin Scorsese discussing how Roger changed and saved his life. At the time Scorsese was in a deep depression and had a drug addiction and when he found out that Siskel and Ebert were going to honour him at the Toronto International Film Festival, Scorsese says, in tears, “it started my life again.” Steve James uses these interviews to beautiful effect in order to display how Ebert shaped people’s lives throughout the years and those three stories solidify that theme present throughout the documentary flawlessly.
The film also goes very in depth about the relationship between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Steve James takes interviews from such people as producers on their shows, Gene’s wife, Marlene and Roger’s wife, Chaz to talk about it. He also takes archive footage from the show as well as behind the scenes to show how their relationship grew over the years from the two being stressful, competitive towards each other to how they eventually ended up respecting and possibly loving each other. Some scenes here are rather hilarious such as watching them film the ‘At the Movies’ promos, while others are very tragic involving Siskel’s passing and to some extent the competition between the two. There is one scene where it is discussed how Ebert felt that Siskel never liked him due to their competitive nature. These moments discussing Siskel and Ebert are either heartwarming or very heartbreaking and James is able to balance the contrast so well that none of the moments ever feel forced. Not only is the nostalgia of Siskel and Ebert’s reviews seen on screen, but the look behind the scenes is so well detailed and so profound.
Finally, the film shows Ebert’s last few months and it is probably not just the bulk of the film but also the most devastating part of the film. We get to see pretty much everything up close and personal and despite Ebert’s condition getting worse throughout, we mostly see him in a very optimistic view. Roger is so happy, making jokes, giving a thumbs up and staying positive mostly. We do see some moments where Ebert is the opposite, such as a scene where Chaz discusses how Roger wanted to die on a few occasions and we also see his struggle as he tries to walk at the hospital and how he cannot climb stairs anymore and fights with Chaz and his nurses over it. These scenes are really devastating, but so honest and true.
Steve James’ ‘Life Itself’ is a huge achievement and probably the best documentary in years. Not only does the film go so in depth, providing an extremely honest look at the life of Roger Ebert, but it also pays tribute to his legacy and honours the influence he has left on filmmakers and film buffs today. James also makes this a very personal project for himself and Ebert in this way and brings the audience to joy or to tears within minutes. I seriously hope this fantastic film gets the recognition it deserves at the Oscars this year because this film deserves “two thumbs way up.”