Steve James’ Life Itself, a documentary about the life of internationally recognised Pulitzer Prize winning film-critic, Roger Ebert, was always going be subject to high expectations – especially given his unfettered access to Ebert in the months leading up to his passing. The good news is that, generally speaking, James manages to live up to those expectations admirably, painting an open, honest, and not overly reverential portrait of the late journalist.
The core of Life Itself lies in the interviews James’ conducted with Ebert in the final months of his life. No longer able to speak following a series of operations relating to papillary thyroid cancer in 2006, James and Ebert communicate via a computerised voice system and an ongoing email exchange. James uses this device to transport the viewer backwards and forwards in time, pulling everything together with a range of very candid interviews with friends and colleagues, including Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and A.O. Scott.
Life Itself proves quite comprehensive, covering Ebert’s early years as a journalistic prodigy; his battles with alcoholism; his time with the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 to 2010; his work with Gene Siskel on the television series, Sneak Previews and At the Movies from 1975 to 1999; his work on the notorious Russ Meyer film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); and his eventual marriage to the woman who would support him through his latter years, Charlie “Chaz” Hammelsmith.
If at times we are left wanting more (I found myself a little unsatisfied by the account of his involvement with Russ Meyers), it is a sign of the filmmaker’s ambitious attempt to encompass all things Ebert in a single narrative. Having said that, the exclusion of Richard Roeper (Ebert’s At the Movies collaborator for eight years following the death of Siskel) felt a little awkward, and I was quick to jump on the internet and see if there had been some sort of rift between the two critics. There had not, and James’ explanation for the decision to exclude Roeper can be found here.
But perhaps this is knit picking, and for those who want an added level of detail, there is always Ebert’s autobiography of the same name. This is an emotionally resonant primer on the life and times of Roger Ebert, detailing the more important periods of his career, and some of his more significant relationships.
A capsule review from the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.