Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert
Directed by: Steve James
My family, especially on my mother’s side are huge sports fans. I, on the other hand, am not. As a child, on the weekends, I would get stuck watching football, baseball, basketball. None of those sports ever grew on me. Sure, I played Little League as a lad, and loved playing baseball. I loved going to live games. Watching it on TV? The most boring thing ever. What I loved to watch, when I could wrangle the television away from the sports fans, was Siskel and Ebert At the Movies.
I would sit there and watch these two grown men argue about movies that I would never, ever see. The passion that these men had for the movies, I think, created a passion in me. I liked moves as a child. Who didn’t? But watching these guys get so passionate, often passionately disagreeing, made it ok for me to get mad at a bad film and they made it OK to watch a film that people would not expect a young man to watch. To say that I idolized these two men would be putting it mildly. I especially idolized Roger Ebert.
As I grew, I learned that my film likes and dislikes fell more in line with his tastes. Of course, now that I am older, I find that I probably would have agreed with Gene Siskel more. But then again, maybe I wouldn’t have. Who knows? What I do know is that these men had an impact on my life, these reviews that I write, and this site in particular owes these two men a debt of gratitude.
Life Itself is a documentary that had begun filming before Roger Ebert died. Before the film was finished, though, he had passed away. In a poignant moment in the film, a jawless Ebert and his wife Chaz, receive some bad news; that he has six to sixteen months to live. Talking through a voice machine, Ebert says he probably won’t be alive to see the film finished. I paraphrase, of course, but it is a heart-wrenching moment as his wife tries to maintain her composure as this jawless man, this man who loved life, faces his death with humor and courage, with the love of his life by his side. It is deeply touching.
Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Prefontaine), Life Itself covers everything from Ebert’s early childhood in Urbana, Illinois through his days dying of cancer. It doesn’t necessarily paint Roger Ebert in the best light at times, especially spending quite a bit of time covering the rivalry between Gene Siskel and himself. That is what a great documentary should do. Cover the good as well as the bad. In his early days, Ebert was a raging alcoholic. He was egotistical. He would bust out the fact that he had a Pulitzer Prize at every opportunity. He knew what he was good at and he let everyone know.
On the flip side, once he married Chaz, he became a step-father and step-grandfather. He was clearly loved by his extended family and seemed to be a good guy. While the rivalry between him and Siskel never really ended, the years they spent together created this brotherly bond. When Siskel died, it tore Ebert up. Siskel was like the older brother Ebert never had, despite the fact that Ebert was the older of the two.
Life Itself is a wonderful documentary that celebrates the life of the film critic who made critics relevant, powerful, and entertaining. Do yourself a favor and watch this poignant, heartfelt, and tear-inducing film. Make no mistake, it is difficult to watch at moments, especially the scenes with Ebert after his jaw had been removed. Despite that, it is a great documentary.
**** out of ****
BIZZAM!! Fun Facts!
- Chaz Ebert objected to showing Roger’s daily throat suction procedure. Roger felt it needed to be shown. It was filmed on a day when Chaz was not present. Be warned, it is a particularly cringe-worthy scene. Roger was clearly in pain.
- Steve James also directed Siskel and Ebert’s favorite film of the ’90’s, Hoop Dreams.