Life Itself: A Roger Ebert Primer

Life Itself Roger Ebert

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.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

5 thoughts on “Life Itself: A Roger Ebert Primer

  1. Jim, I thought your article was well-written. I also appreciated your giving an explanation for the film’s omission of Richard Roeper. While I wasn’t particularly a fan of Ebert as a critic, I appreciated his love of cinema. The film brings this out, and I think any serious film fan will relate to that. The shocker for me was the Ebert wrote the script for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Who knew?

  2. Good review, James. This is supposed to be a fine film, from what I’ve read. I’ve read a lot of Ebert’s reviews, and I generally found him reliable. As for Siskel, he made a video appearance at an event I attended that featured Michael Jordan and asked Jordan what his favorite film was. Jordan replied: “Friday,” at which Siskel hemmed and hawed, obviously unhappy with the answer.

    I actually didn’t think “Friday” was too bad. Had a few laughs. It wasn’t “The Seventh Seal,” but then again, what is? 😀

  3. I missed this during it’s very brief run in Washington, D.C. and am hoping its popular reviews will bring it back soon. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was very much an Ebert guy. I found his tastes, with several major exceptions, to be similar to mine so I trusted his reviews more than most. I was disappointed in his autobiography, which seems very disjointed, so I am looking forward to seeing James’ film.

    Thanks for all the recent reviews James. Not having seen any of the movies, I have no comments to make, but it’s good to have you out there providing solid reporting on a range of new movies.

    • This one looks worth catching James. I have read some of his stuff over the years, but have never seen him in ‘action’ on TV. I am aware that he tends to split film fans, so it will be interesting to see more of what he was about.
      Regards, Pete.

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