By Anthony Miglieri
When I was a kid, I read Roger Ebert’s reviews simply because my family happened to get the Chicago Sun-Times paper. Sure, I had had my favorite movies at different points in my life—Thomas and the Magic Railroad (a 1-star film according to Ebert), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Rocky, to name a few early stages—but I had never known analysis and reverence for film as an art form before I began looking closely at his work. I also read his 2011 book Life Itself: A Memoir, and my young self identified with him on even more fronts, some of them admittedly tenuous: not only did he love watching, talking, and writing about movies, but he also grew up in Illinois, he was overweight, and his dad was an electrician. Like most youngsters, I declared an idol for myself. Roger Ebert, likely the most influential film critic and connoisseur in history, has touched countless other moviegoing souls with his wonderful work, and Steve James’ documentary Life Itself pays delightful and touching homage to this extraordinary man of words.
First of all, yes, this film was released in 2014, a little over a year after Roger Ebert passed away. The Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, in its powerful and mysterious ways, was able to get his wife, Chaz Ebert, to attend the festival this year, so they put on a special screening of this film. The entire experience, including the brief and emotional Q&A segment held by Mrs. Ebert (as well as the film critics panel she moderated later in the evening), was incredibly meaningful to me, and it seemed to impact the many other attendees as well.
The beginning of the documentary introduces the first of two major strands that the film weaves together: in scenes filmed by James, Ebert is hospital-ridden because of a hairline bone fracture. Throughout Life Itself, we return several times to this new footage to see comments on his past via notes written on paper and verbalized through his computer, visits by Chaz and other family members, and his struggles through the latest of several physical rehab sessions. The rest of the film chronicles his life and career, including his lustrous time with the Sun-Times newspaper, his relationship with Gene Siskel on their long-running show, At the Movies, and some more candid memories delivered via interview by friends and colleagues.
At its basest level, Life Itself achieves what most every good documentary strives to do: it entertains, informs, and creates new meaning around its subject. This film does a fantastic job of documenting lesser-known stages from all over Ebert’s life, from his childhood in Urbana, Illinois, to his early journalism days in seedy Chicago bars, to his settling down with the love of his life, Chaz. The archival photos, videos, and talking head interviews are all organized in a fluid way that allows room for tenderness, criticism, and humor. One of my favorite bits involves director and friend of Ebert’s Martin Scorsese, who comments on the Ebert-scripted Russ Meyer film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Also affecting are interviews with young filmmakers like Ramin Bahrani whose careers were helped off the ground by Ebert’s support. The musical score, which consists of jazz and blues tunes, is an alternately rich, relaxing, and swaggering accompaniment that emphasizes the bold rhythms of the great man’s life.
Importantly, the film also does not shy away from the uncomfortable episodes in Ebert’s time. The focus on these periods, including his problems with alcohol and his sometimes-tense relationship with Siskel, provides the type of truthfulness essential to a good documentary. Not only are these details incredibly interesting to Ebert megafans like myself, but they help achieve that goal that much of film, and art for that matter, strives for: they paint a fully-formed human being, incredible and incredibly flawed. The ending stretch of the film, which is dedicated to Ebert’s final days, is painful, but I truly value the consideration that Steve James takes in crafting this view of entire life. Although Life Itself does not attempt at all to break the form or pave new ground for documentaries at large, it doesn’t need to. In its obvious caring and thoroughness, this film is about all I could have asked for.
Last week, I came to a somber realization: the Roger Ebert’s Great Movies app is not supported by iOS 11. I can no longer carry in my pocket hundreds of Ebert’s glowing—and glowingly rendered—reviews. I found a truly mind-boggling amount of cinematic knowledge, inspiration, and comfort from his pieces in print and on that flat, digital application. Roger Ebert has been one of the great forces for good in my life. As one interviewee observes in the film, Ebert had been reviewing movies for half of the history of cinema when he left us in 2013. Although the reels will continue to roll long after he died, what he brought to the culture and to the souls of countless writers and moviegoers alike will flicker on for the foreseeable future.