Friday, 23 January 2015

Roger Ebert celebrated in Life, Itself

Steve James, renowned documentarian of the bonafide classic Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, returns with a paean to one of the great film critics of the 20th century and who morphed into a technological visionary for the 21st century, Pulitizer Prize winning author and Chicago Sun Times journalist, Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert was akin to a giant in film writing circles, widely respected and more beloved than his contemporaries Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.  Ebert garnered nationwide celebrity in America thanks to his television show partnership with Gene Siskel (of the Chicago Tribune) on At the Movies, where they were famous for the 'Two Thumbs Up' endorsement.

Ebert's legendary grasp of film knowledge and history along with his appraisal of up and coming American filmmakers led to him cementing the careers of many first time filmmakers - among them this film's executive producer, Martin Scorsese.  Others who have been embraced by Ebert's praise in his writings include Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani and Selma director Ava DuVernay. All are featured in the documentary telling them how his positive influence of their work has directly influenced their output.

Following his diagnosis of cancer in his lower jaw, leading to multiple surgeries and operations, Ebert decided to have his lower jaw removed from his mouth and therefore leaving him unable to speak.  However this did not deter Ebert's work, he remained a force of nature in terms of copy, becoming a scion for the internet and a visionary in the power of social media. Without having a voice, he maintained the necessity to have one.  His writing which had become more fan friendly to the actors he adored in the 1990s had rediscovered his verve and produced some of the finest writing of his career in his later years before his passing in 2013.


James' documentary is part celebration and tribute piece from the directors whose career owe Ebert's input, his friends from the paper and his family.  Most notably his soulmate, Chaz Ebert, who like Roger was a recovering alcoholic when they met.  This bond they had helped galvanise him and stay focused on his work, sometimes all you need is a good woman.

To this reviewer it is ironic that in the same week I viewed Life, Itself I also had the pleasure of viewing The Theory of Everything; another film about another genius trapped in a wheelchair for the majority of the movie and yet helped by the love of a good woman, sometimes that is all we as men need.

Whilst not holding back punches in depicting the end of Ebert's life, James nevertheless serves Ebert with the dignity of not showing him at his worst, instead we see the final exchange of emails between Ebert and James - these are not only a fan and his idol reminiscing, but a conversation between two friends who have grown close over the production. 

One moment that sticks with you is the admission by Ebert using his voice command on his computer, that he will more than likely have passed by the time the film itself is released. The shock of this realisation is not lost on Chaz and the testimonies of his step-grandchildren who reflect on the films they have enjoyed watching together all the more heartbreaking and tear-jerking.

This is a film not just about a writer and his legacy, but a film about a man fighting the deadly cancer within him and still fighting to combat the debilitating effect it has on you, the film does more than enough to cement the legitimacy of Roger Ebert as one of the finest cinephile minds of this or any era.  His memory rightly lives on and this documentary serves as the warmest of tributes to it.  Two thumbs way up.

Life, Itself is released on DVD from Dogwoof on Monday 23rd February
You can find Roger Ebert's vast work of film criticism at his website

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