The loss of Roger Ebert in 2013 was a blow to anyone who knew him or respected his work. Whether you agreed with his reviews or not, here was a man who loved and understood film, who had a true passion for cinema and who inspired many, including this reviewer, to think further about the medium and show it the respect and attention it deserves.
With Life Itself, Ebert himself receives the respect and attention he deserves.
The film follows the man himself as he goes through rehabilitation in hospital, occasionally answering questions from the film's director Steve James. It's a tough watch as the documentary doesn't sugar-coat anything and Ebert often looks like he's in a great deal of pain but the fact he perseveres the way he does and still finds the strength to keep a sense of humour really shows an amount of courage that's hugely inspirational. The months leading up to the iconic critic's death are very emotional and heartbreaking as Chaz Ebert, Roger's wife, stands by her husband through difficult times and you see a very human side to the man. Spliced in are talking heads chronicling the critic's life from his writing (and drinking) days pre-Pulitzer Prize to his involvement with cult movie Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and his popular TV partnership with fellow reviewer Gene Siskel. Strangely, no mention of Richard Roeper throughout, something which does stand out as the film's one distracting omission.
Some great archive footage is put together including Siskel and Ebert bickering while recording a TV spot, Roger Ebert's own mini-documentary about the Cannes Film Festival, some home movies showing a relaxed Roger on holiday with his family and very early (and very wooden) episodes of "At The Movies". We learn more about the tumultuous dynamic between Siskel and Ebert off-screen but, ultimately, even that becomes a genuinely moving part of the film. Other critics appear in the film in interviews, even some who weren't particularly big fans of Ebert, which is refreshing since it gives us a glimpse of the other side of the coin. While the film aims to pay tribute to Roger Ebert, it also aims to be honest and never overly complimentary, something which it achieves admirably. The likes of Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese also put in their two cents and it's certainly interesting to see Scorsese's reaction to Ebert panning The Color Of Money, for example.
I was skeptical but Life Itself is indeed a fitting send-off to the most influential film critic that ever was. The film isn't exactly too upbeat so it will leave you feeling pretty teary but it'll also leave you with a powerful, inspiring message and an increased respect for a truly unique, talented and strong individual.
Thumbs up, of course.