Life Itself 

Roger Ebert documentary is a uniquely emotional experience

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Life Itself
  • Life Itself

Let's not even pretend there's a way for most film critics of my generation to evaluate Life Itself—Steve James' biography of film critic Roger Ebert, taking its title from Ebert's 2011 memoir—on any remotely "objective" basis. Personally, I owe my career to the generosity he often showed to young aspiring would-be colleagues. Watching Life Itself is like attending the memorial service for your idol; it's not a passive experience.

Yet that's also somehow fitting, because Ebert was never one who pretended that he didn't bring his quirks and preferences to the work of analyzing movies. Life Itself plays out in part as the story of his life as Ebert told it in the book—with the traditional archival footage and talking heads—but it also follows Ebert and his wife, Chaz, during the final months of his life, as the long struggle with cancer that first took most of his jaw along with his ability to eat and speak eventually took his life.

It's that mix of elements that makes Life Itself such a uniquely emotional experience. While the film spends time on Ebert's early years and the alcoholism he publicly acknowledged later in life, it also focuses on his prickly relationship with his TV partner Gene Siskel—including some very funny outtakes—and how hurt he was that Siskel kept his own terminal illness so secret. The parts of Life Itself that show Ebert's struggles with rehabilitation and other fallout from his illness feel like keeping a promise to himself to be open about the messier parts of his experience.

And that's why, even when James' documentary is bumpy or conventional, it captures something fundamental about the process of being thoughtful about art: It's a process of being thoughtful about life. As much as Life Itself is a memorial to its subject, it's a celebration of a particularly worthy way of being alive.


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Life Itself
Rated R · 116 minutes · 2014
Staff Rating:
Official Site:
Director: Steve James
Producer: Zak Piper, Steve James, Garrett Basch, Martin Scorsese, Steve Zaillian, Michael Ferro Jr., Gordon Quinn, Justine Nagan, Kat White, Mark Mitten and Vinnie Malhotra
Cast: Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert
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What others are saying (7)

Memphis Flyer Life Itself The documentary calculates beloved film and cultural critic Roger Ebert. by Addison Engelking 07/24/2014
East Bay Express Life Itself Roger & Us by Kelly Vance 07/02/2014
4 more reviews...
Boise Weekly Roger That "I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don't remember how i got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me." by George Prentice 07/16/2014
NUVO 'Life Itself': Five stars for Roger Ebert doc Intended as an adaptation of Ebert's 2011 memoir but completed after his death, Life Itself is an exceptional look at an exceptional man. by Ed Johnson-Ott 07/11/2014
Portland Mercury Roger and Out Life Itself: Roger Ebert had a life worth celebrating. by Ned Lannamann 07/02/2014
Inlander Champion of the Movie Life Itself remembers the impact of Roger Ebert by Louis Black 07/16/2014

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