From the Back Row: Go See ‘Life Itself’ at Belcourt Theatre

Life Itself 2Roger Ebert and his longtime print competitor/TV co-host Gene Siskel were often accused of reducing film critique to thumbs up or down. That view of their TV opinions was ultimately ridiculous given the mountains of words they put together in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune regarding good, bad and mediocre cinema.

Does that mean they were above any criticism? Of course not, and one sequence in Steve James‘ exquisite documentary Life Itself based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name (and aided by a successful Indiegogo campaign) points that up: outtakes from their attempts to shoot the opening of a 1987 broadcast where both get rather childishly snide about the other. Ebert’s book and James’ film don’t shy away from the downside, including the cancer battle that among other effects rendered Ebert unable to speak in his final years.

Life Itself 3But the doc also does a brilliant job of showing the upside that Ebert’s professional and personal evolution. The young reporter and hard-drinking raconteur that became a film critic by default in 1967 and the esteemed writer and family man (including his loving wife Chaz) that died in 2013 seem like two different people, but of course they’re not; tying it all together with moving and still images as well as narration and interviews, the Hoop Dreams director ensures his subject’s journey only gains power in its cinematic telling.

Life Itself 1For more about the film from a journalist that contributes to Ebert’s site read Craig D. Lindsey’s lovely review for the Nashville Scene; for showtimes to watch this doc properly (it’s available in home-friendly video-on-demand and iTunes formats, but shouldn’t a film about Ebert be seen “at the movies”?) click here and then go see it now at the Belcourt Theatre. Life Itself beautifully honors a man that relished the human condition no less than he loved the movies that reflected that many-faceted condition.


*Photos by Art Shay and Kevin Horan courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (