Should I Watch..? 'Life Itself' (2014)
What's the big deal?
Life Itself is a biographical documentary film released in 2014 and is an adaptation of the 2011 memoir of the same name written by American film critic Roger Ebert. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and was an official selection at the 67th Cannes Film Festival. Made during the last few months of Roger's life, the film explores his background and upbringing as well as his relationship with long-time colleague Gene Siskel and the impact Roger had, not just on film criticism but on American culture in general. Released to universal acclaim, it was sadly overlooked at the Academy Awards where it failed to secure a nomination for Best Documentary, despite being many people's favourite to win it. For me personally, it was a chance to get to know the man who has influenced my writing enormously as well as to say my goodbyes to a truly great man.
What's it about?
Director Steve James was one of many young filmmakers who were encouraged by Roger to continue their work and he decided to adapt Roger's autobiography Life Itself almost as a thank-you. Using archive footage of his TV show and interviews with Roger himself, James builds up a picture of a man who fell into film criticism one day at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 and remained its chief critic until his death in 2013. It also covers his partying lifestyle and subsequent alcoholism, his relationship of director Russ Meyer who Roger co-wrote Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls with and his sometimes fractious relationship with his co-host of At The Movies, Gene Siskel.
The film also takes an unflinching look at Roger's diagnosis with thyroid cancer which would ultimately result in Roger losing his lower jaw and with it, the ability to eat or speak normally. Regardless, Roger became a prolific blogger and writer online and found a whole new fanbase as a result. His illness takes a toll on his health and his marriage to Chaz Ebert and their step children and ultimately, costs him his life.
- Contrary to popular opinion, the film is not narrated by Ebert but vocal impersonator Stephen Stanton who also voices Ebert on the TV show Robot Chicken.
- Chaz Ebert objected to Steve James filming Roger's daily throat suction procedure while Roger wanted to include it in the film. They shot it on a day when Chaz wasn't at the hospital.
- Director Steve James also directed Hoop Dreams which Roger declared as his favourite film of the 1990's.
What's to like?
It's perhaps surprising that a young man who grew up on England's rural east coast in the 1980's should come to follow the writings of a film critic in Chicago. But reading Ebert's work entertained, amused and educated me and in many ways, taught me that writing movie reviews could be more than just a hobby. This powerful documentary allows people to understand what it was that made Roger become the premier film critic in the US, if not the world, and assesses the impact his career and style had on those who follow him. The narration provided by Stephen Stanton is warming and interesting, inviting us to experience Roger's many triumphs and personal tragedies first-hand. Having never seen Gene Siskel and Roger exchanging their views, often in quite a forthright manner, the look at their rivalry and friendship is still fascinating.
However, I was more drawn to his illness and the tremendous amount of effort it took for Roger to stay alive. But despite all the surgeries, chemotherapy and finally acceptance that there was nothing to be done, Roger still continued to write prolifically and his profoundly moving blog was an insight into the mind of someone at ease with themselves. "It is human nature to look away from illness", he once wrote. "We don't enjoy a reminder of our own fragile mortality. That's why writing on the Internet can become a life-saver for me... And on the web, my real voice finds expression."
What's not to like?
Sure enough, there are times when human nature might get the better of you. The film takes an uncomfortable view of Roger's health which was clearly declining when James was filming him. The jovial and life-loving man we see in pictures and archive footage has been replaced by a man slowly coming to terms with the fact that his time of Earth with his family and loved ones is coming to an end. Chaz displays enormous dignity and pride when talking about Roger's passing and I would be lying if I said that no tears were shed. I mourned as she did, though clearly not as deeply. She had the fortune to know and love Roger and she understood his desire to still serve his readership, even though the end was coming.
As a documentary, I suppose I would have liked to see and hear a bit more from Roger - either during his long TV career or excerpts that were so brilliantly read by Stanton in his imitation of Roger's voice. But generally speaking, I watched the film enraptured - there is a saying that you should never meet your heroes, lest the magic is broken forever. Not only does Life Itself allow you to meet and know Roger but I'm pleased to say that he is every bit as intelligent, noble and witty as I had hoped he would be. Any critic with his own star on Hollywood Boulevard must have done something right.
Should I watch it?
Powerful, emotive, funny and life-affirming - Life Itself is every bit as good a documentary as I hoped it would be. It is genuinely moving and completely compelling, even if you had never heard of the man because it makes appreciating his body of work all the more. His seemingly limitless knowledge and enthusiasm continues to influence generations of film critics today from Roger's old friend Leonard Maltin to the likes of A.O. Scott and, if I may be so bold, yours truly.
Great For: fans of Roger, film historians, film critics
Not So Great For: squeamish types, people who cry easily
What else should I watch?
Few documentaries have had such an impact with me but that's not to say that they aren't worth watching. For example, Morgan Spurlock's excellent Super Size Me is a damning expose on the dangers of fast food and specifically, McDonalds. Bowling For Columbine is arguably Michael Moore's best film to date (certainly more entertaining than the incendiary Fahrenheit 9/11) as it tackles the seemingly unending problem of America's gun laws. Music documentaries are always fun - take Foo Fighter's frontman Dave Grohl's affectionate look at a dingy but historic studio in LA in Sound City or Peter Bogdanovich's 4-hour epic look at one of my favourite rock bands, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down A Dream.
Himself (archive footage)
Roger Ebert (voice)
Release Date (UK)
14th November, 2014
© 2015 Benjamin Cox