Roger 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.
But 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.
For 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.