Seven reasons you have to see Life Itself, the Steve James documentary about Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert Life Itself

Any fan of cinema owes it to him or herself to see Life Itself, which premièred in Montreal on July 11 and is screening exclusively at Cinéma du Parc. (It’s not available on-demand in Canada yet.) The most famous film critic of all time died at the age of 70 in April 2013, but he leaves a rich legacy behind, to say nothing of all the people he’s inspired and turned on to cinema. Life Itself is a great biographical documentary with compelling, raw and honest footage. Here are seven reasons you have to see it:

It’s directed by Steve James, the acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams.

It’s incomplete, and that’s OK.  There were questions director Steve James asked Roger Ebert (about the future of film criticism and Ebert’s own career) via email but Ebert never got a chance to answer due to his deteriorating health. It lets you imagine what he would have answered. I think he would be optimistic, arguing that the Internet has made film criticism a wholly collaborative endeavour. His own website, rogerebert.com, is the perfect example of that, archiving every review he’s ever written and enlisting contributors from around the world to write and report about cinema.

Interviews with Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris help shed a light on the kind of impact he had on cinema and filmmakers. Scorsese said when Ebert gave an unfavourable review to The Colour of Money, even though Ebert had presented Scorsese with an honorary award a few years prior for Raging Bull, Scorsese knew Ebert was being fair and doing his job – Scorsese cared what Ebert thought not only because of his influence, but because of his respect and love of the art form; Herzog dedicated his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, a gorgeous film, to Ebert; DuVernay appreciated the exposure he gave her film I Will Follow, which likely wouldn’t have been seen by as many people without Ebert’s praise; similarly, Errol Morris’s first documentary Gates of Heaven was lauded by Ebert, to whom Morris credits his career. Morris has gone on to direct the documentaries The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, an Oscar winner for best doc.

An anecdote by Ramin Bahrani helps reaffirm the generous man Ebert was. The director of Man Push Cart recalls receiving a gift from Ebert, which Ebert himself received from actress Laura Dern: a jigsaw puzzle that Alfred Hitchcock once gave Marilyn Monroe. Ebert said it’s Bahrani’s responsibility now to give it to someone he deems worthy.

It takes Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself as a jumping-off point, and builds on it to cover his entire life, though archival video footage, old photos and new interviews with the people who knew him best, pre- and post-Pulitzer. The book was first published in 2011, after which Ebert’s health gradually worsened, so the film is as up-to-date as it can be.

Warts and all: Life Itself is really frank and honest, sometimes graphically so. In two instances, we see how Roger is fed – remember, his jaw was surgically removed years ago. But Roger is happy to let the cameras in and the documentary touches on his struggles with alcoholism, and his egotism. There are outtakes from his show with Gene Siskel that are funny now, but seem horrifying when you consider that two people who competed with each other so vehemently also worked very closely together for years. Siskel’s widow Marlene also recalls when she was eight months pregnant and Roger hailed a cab and got into it before her – and left! He’s a totally changed person now, she concedes, and it’s all thanks to…

Life Itself

Chaz Ebert: Life Itself is about Roger Ebert, but by his own admission in the book – and it’s made clear in the doc – there would probably be no Ebert without Chaz. Or at the very least, not this Ebert. Chaz and Roger were married for more than 20 years. She remained hopeful and loving throughout his illnesses and continues to support his work as she always had.

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Life Itself is screening at Cinéma du Parc.

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