Roger Ebert in Life Itself (2014)


(director: Steve James; screenwriter: inspired by the memoir Life Itself by Roger Ebert; cinematographer: Dana Kupper; editors: Steve James/David E. Simpson; music: Joshua Abrams; cast: Werner Herzog, Richard Corliss, Errol Morris, A. O. Scott, Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert, Martin Scorsese; Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Zak Piper/Steve James/Garrett Basch; Magnolia Pictires; 2014)
“A lively thumbs up documentary on America’s most popular, intelligent and influential modern-day movie critic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s inspired by the memoir Life Itself by Roger Ebert. Life Itself is a lively thumbs up documentary on America’s most popular, intelligent and influential modern-day movie critic. Steve James(“Hoop Dreams”/”Reel Paradise”/”Stevie”) gives the heartfelt film plenty of heart in his warm direction and perceptive unsentimental depiction of the acclaimed movie lover critic. After a battle with thyroid cancer, a wheelchair-bound and often hospitalized disfigured (loss of jaw) and unable to talk or eat without a feeding tube Roger Ebert, takes comfort in the love from his adoring wife and filmmaker pals. Roger passed away at age 71, in 2013. The hospital footage of Roger looking so sickly was not an easy watch, as one can only reflect on his courage and admire him for continuing to work in such discomfort.

For the curious viewers, Roger introduced them to films that weren’t mainstream. For aspiring critics, he showed those who were film lovers that an ability to write, empathize and think could lead to a decent paying job as a reviewer and also to the possibility of achieving pop culture fame.

James shows the confident Roger, the son of a Chicago electrician, who went from his college newspaper editor job to being a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and then out of the blue was asked by the paper to be its movie critic in 1967 and then being the only movie critic to win a Pulitzer Prize. Overcoming obesity, alcoholism, a lonely bachelor life, a rough screenwriting debut with Russ Meyer’s campy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and a bout with self-loathing, Roger will find his perfect wife, the black Chaz, and at age 50 they marry and find love and happiness together for the next two decades.

The pic interviews Roger’s saloon pals in Chicago, his colleagues on the newspaper, and other movie critics and directors he had an impact on to get their views on the popular media figure. A big slice of the film is about Roger’s long-time relationship with TV partner Gene Siskel (which I thought was too much coverage). It was that program’s national popularity that made Ebert a household name across America. By showing never before seen out-takes from that show, James gives us further insight into the complicated relationship between the rival movie critics from the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune–viewed as argumentative brothers wrestling for control of the relationship, who loved each other despite showing genuine acrimony to each other.

Though criticized for his populism and big ego, Roger was nevertheless committed to recognizing unknown and arty filmmakers he deemed deserving of a chance to reach a wide audience. Roger, it’s pointed out, generously championed early films by James, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese and many others. All those filmmakers credit Roger with helping them immensely in their chosen field, giving them a jump-start that if not given might have left them unnoticed. It’s an uplifting, informative and entertaining and moving film experience that I’m sure Roger would have praised as sound film-making–sincerely showing how Roger accepted death as part of the living process and lives on through his rich words.