Life Itself

Posted on: 24 November 2014 by Laurence Green

Laurence Green finds Steve James's documentary film charting the last months of film critic Roger Ebert by turns personal, funny, painful and deeply moving.

Life Itself - Roger Ebert documentary

Few film critics have ever achieved – and probably never will – the level that Roger Ebert attained – from his Pulitzer Prize winning writing for the Chicago Sun Times to his celebrated often heated review show with fellow critic Gene Siskel. Cancer ravaged Ebert’s body and robbed him of his voice, but he blogged about film until the day he died in 2013, aged 71.

Steve James’s compassionate portrait of the man entitled Life Itself (released nationwide on 13 November), based on his best-selling memoir of the same name, celebrates the life of Ebert but never glosses over its faults. More than anything it highlights how his intelligence and humour fed his passion for cinema.

In recounting the inspiring and entertaining life of this world-renowned critic and social commentator, the filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to Roger and his courageous and devoted wife Chaz during the final few months of his life. In that time they captures Roger’s fighting spirit, his sharp sense of humour and the ways he directly inspired filmmakers, family and friends. President Obama at one point remarks “When he didn’t like a film he was honest; when he did he was effusive – capturing the unique power of the movies to take us some place magical!” Roger was an avid supporter of independent film and an early champion of the work of such iconic filmmakers as Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, who are all interviewed on film.

Roger himself became a household name when he joined Gene Siskel to create one of the longest running, most influential television shows in history, making Chicago the cultural centre of film criticism. The film features candid and insightful interviews with many of the principle producers of the show, along with the first ever documentary interview with Siskel’s wife Marlene.

In the wake of Roger’s illness and disability, his writing grew creatively and in importance. Using his blog and social media he became a must-read commentator, seeing a film as “a machine that generates empathy”, and addressing the political and social issues of the time. His public defiance of cancer and the resulting disfigurement literally and symbolically put a new face on the disease and brought inspiration to countless thousands in the disabled community and beyond.

This in short is a movie that is by turns personal, funny, painful and deeply moving. I’m sure Roger himself would have approved and given it the thumbs up!

Life Itself

Released to cinemas from November 13 2014 

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