Life Itself: Sundance Review

Life Itself Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Life Itself Sundance Film Still - H 2014

A fulsome appreciation of the life and work of the world’s most famous film critic.

Steve James' engrossing documentary about Roger Ebert celebrates the late film critic's life and work but also presents an unflinching view of his medical difficulties.

Steve James’ engrossing, unflinching, moving and comprehensive biographical documentary about his friend Roger Ebert derives its tart title from the late film critic’s 2011 memoir. But, to borrow from books by and about others, it could as easily have been called A Life in Full, for the three-dimensional portrait it provides of its subject, or even Goodbye to All That, due to the fact that the film was made during the final five months of Ebert’s life and that he well knew that it would not be complete until he died. 

Made for CNN Films, this account of a fully realized man and a life overflowing with abundance and achievement will nonetheless prove disturbing for some due to the vividness with which it presents its subject’s medical difficulties. But, along with its television broadcasts, this astute and sensitive picture will enjoy a long life in festivals, home media formats and educational settings.

The most famous film critic the world has ever known and the only one to have become genuinely wealthy in the profession, due mostly to the television show he hosted with various partners over the years, Ebert was both celebrated and ridiculed for his “thumbs-up or -down” rating game and was a frequent guest of Johnny Carson and other talk show hosts. He also was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, published many books (some on subjects other than movies) and was a lifelong participant in the Boulder Conference on World Affairs.

In his youth, he was a prodigious drinker and good-times boy and wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for his pal Russ Meyer. In 1979, he gave up alcohol to save his life and, at 50, he was married for the first and only time to Chaz, a life-altering event through which he acquired a large family and a magnificent companion who would loyally and lovingly see him through to the end.

It is this difficult end that provides both the framework for the documentary and the material that some viewers will feel they could live without. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer and eventually other afflictions in the mid-2000s, Ebert endured numerous operations and treatments over the last eight or so years of his life that left him without a lower jaw and unable to eat, drink or speak.

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For most people, perhaps especially those in the public eye, this would have marked the end and a willful retreat into respected privacy. For Ebert, it launched his extraordinary final flowering; he learned to “speak” via a synthesizer that vocalized what he quickly wrote on a computer, launched his blog and website that consolidated his life’s work and gave him a larger following than ever, and began writing with unprecedented fluency about a wider range of issues. More than one participant here suggests that when Ebert lost his ability to talk, he found his voice.

The many hospital and convalescent scenes plainly reveal what Ebert had to cope with at the end, just as they show Chaz’s unflagging devotion and attentiveness to the smallest matters. The shots in which you can see right through Ebert’s drooping jaw are upsetting, as are others that show him in real pain. Such moments are included, however, because the patient himself demanded it.

One of the most moving interludes here recounts the brain cancer diagnosis of Ebert’s longtime rival and TV co-host Gene Siskel and his death at 53 in 1999. Siskel told no one outside his immediate family, including Ebert, of his condition, and the latter was disconsolate when he missed the chance to say goodbye to him at the end. It was then that Ebert resolved that, were he ever in the same position, he would be as public as possible about it, sharing what he was going through and putting up the good fight.

Quite apart from all this, James has done a wonderful job of telling a colorful life story (Ebert was the crucial early supporter of James’ breakthrough documentary Hoop Dreams 20 years ago). From a treasure trove of personal photographs, documents and first-person commentary by Ebert and a vocal impersonator, along with terrific input from some of his old drinking buddies from the legendary O’Rourke’s on North Avenue in Chicago, collaborators on the TV shows, other filmmakers to whom Ebert gave major boosts (Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Gregory Nava, Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay and Martin Scorsese, an executive producer here as well) and film critics (Richard Corliss, A.O. Scott, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Howie Movshovitz), James shapes an excellent composite picture of his friend.

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In unusually candid remarks, Scorsese recalls a terribly difficult personal period in the 1980s when Ebert extended a crucial lifeline that began to pull him out of his crisis. Corliss and Rosenbaum frankly address the charge that Ebert, along with Siskel and his replacements, were guilty of “dumbing down” film criticism with their TV banter and reductive thumbs approach. The funniest moments include outtakes from Siskel and Ebert shows in which Ebert far exceeds his partner in childish petulance and the need to have the last word.

By contrast, the sections devoted to Ebert and his wife as a couple are touching, with Chaz speaking about what the interracial aspect of their marriage meant to them, but perhaps even more to their relatives, and how Roger so enthusiastically embraced her children from a former marriage, taking them on annual international trips and teaching them all about movies.

Even those in journalism, the film business and elsewhere who knew Roger Ebert fairly well will learn a lot through James’ richly satisfying film, and while some will flinch at what he went through in his final years, many more will admire the strength and perseverance that contributed to his becoming a genuinely resolved man.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production: CNN Films, Kartemquin Films, Film Rites
With: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Raven Ebert, Ava DuVernay, Ramin Bahrani, Richard Corliss, Nancy de los Santos, Bruce Elliot, Thea Flaum, Josh Golden, Werner Herzog, Marlene Iglitzen, Donna LaPietra, Rick Kogan, John McHugh, Errol Morris, Howie Movshovitz, Gregory Nava, William Nack, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Roger Simon
Director: Steve James, based on the memoir “Life Itself” by Roger Ebert
Producers: Zak Piper, Steve James, Garrett Basch
Executive producers: Martin Scorsese, Steven Zaillian, Gordon Quinn, Justine Nagan, Mark Mitten, Kat White, Michael W. Ferro Jr., Vinnie Malhotra, Amy Entelis
Director of photography: Dana Kupper
Editors: Daniel E. Simpson, Steve James
Music: Joshua Abrams
Running time 116 minutes.