Life Itself (2014)
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Steve James
Director: Steve James
Writer(s): Roger Ebert, Steve James
Studio: CNN Films
Running Time: 116 minutes
Official Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Roger Ebert lived the last six or seven years of his life with no voice, other than a computer generated one he typed into in the final few years. This movie in both a figurative and a literal sense, is about giving Ebert his voice back. At least, that was what it was about before he passed away, which he unfortunately did during the filming of this documentary. After that, the movie’s focus shifted inevitably to become more of a eulogy and tribute to the man himself.
I waited a long time to see Life Itself. As some of you may recall I reviewed the book from which this movie was inspired on TVE earlier this year. I was one of those guys who tracked this movie’s progress, waiting for it to come out in each new little festival, or small grand opening, until it finally got a wide enough release for yours truly to be able to see it. Why was I so urgent to watch a documentary about a film critic who has now been dead for well over a year? The answer to that question is very similar to why I read the book. It’s just great to hear an old friend’s voice again after a long absence. When I was getting near the end of the book, I deliberately started reading slower so that I could, in my own way, prolong the “conversation” I was having with Roger Ebert.
I cannot even begin to count the number of tributes written about Ebert since he passed. He may in fact be the most well eulogized person of the 21st century, or if not, certainly of the past few years anyway. While he was just a trivial piece of pop culture trivia to the average man on the street, he was an inspiration and a hero in many regards to nearly every person in the last decade or so who has decided to take up pen and paper, or keyboard and mouse, and write down a movie or television review. So that said, with him being a hero to a large crowd of (usually very wordy) people who mostly write either for a living or as a hobby, it is not surprising to see him wind up as the subject of so many online tributes and memorials. Hell, even Rob Schneider (of the infamous “Your Movie Sucks” fiasco) got in on the action.
I too wanted to write such a piece in the immediate aftermath of his passing. I wanted to join the thousands of voices popping up in various corners shouting in unison “This man mattered and deserves to be remembered…” But I ultimately decided against it, and instead just contented myself reading many of the beautiful tributes, the best of which were written by those who either knew him personally or who had at least met him in some capacity. My relationship with the man never went any further than just being a devoted reader of his reviews every single week on his website for the better part of ten years. Roger’s death affected me like few celebrity deaths have.
This movie was a chance then to meet for one last time with Roger, hear some fun stories, and then hopefully allow his memory to rest peacefully in my mind. With that in mind this is a tough movie to review objectively. Someone who was not an Ebert devotee could probably do a better job of that than me, and some already undoubtedly have. That said, I think even those who were not big fans of his writing and knew him only via the Siskel and Ebert TV show will still find enough to chew on here to keep their interest.
The movie begins by Steve James telling us that the footage we were seeing was shot some five months before Ebert passed away. The portions of the movie spent in the hospital with Ebert himself give me mixed emotions. It certainly gave me no pleasure seeing the man in the condition he was in at that late state in his life. I winced and shuddered seeing the nurses hook up the suction tube to the hole in his throat where his jaw had previously been. If I had a choice in the matter I would have probably rather not have had to have seen that. But this was not my movie, it was Roger’s, and as he wrote in his book and then in an email to Steve James that is displayed in the movie, he wanted the full truth about his life to be told. So with that in mind there was never a chance this documentary was going to be anything but graphically open and honest about Ebert’s condition in the final few years, and we get to see it here, in all of its agonizing and heart wrenching misery. For anyone who has ever watched a loved one suffer and die slowly from a debilitating disease, this would be a film to avoid.
While the guts of the movie are such scenes as that, for me, the heart of the movie is in the interviews of Roger’s friends, colleagues, and artists such as Martin Scorsese and Warner Herzog. There are lots of great stories told and interesting topics covered that make the movie an enjoyable watch for any Ebert fan. Among such topics includes Ebert’s having written the 1960’s X-Rated exploitation movie, “Beyond The Valley of the Dolls”…. And for all that can and should be said about Ebert’s grasp of cinematic nuance, and his ability to make difficult films palatable for the average Joe, all of his friends seem to agree that the reason he enjoyed the work of Russ Meyer so much was simple. Roger was a big fan of girls with big breasts. Sometimes it’s the simplest explanation that works best. As much deserved lampooning as Ebert takes for having participated in that movie, including a classic review by Scorsese who picks apart one scene as good as Roger himself has ever done himself.
Steve James employed a great three pronged strategy when it comes to narrating this documentary. Where there is available audio of Ebert talking about a given subject, he uses it. The best use is the great opening montage of the film where we are taken in to a dark theatre and Ebert delivers a fine speech about what cinema is all about. The movies he says, are essentially giant machines used to create empathy in us, and to help us better understand ourselves and the other people we have to share this world with. Next, when the subject involves something that happened after the surgery that took his voice he quotes Ebert’s words using the computer generated voice that Ebert himself called his own for the final years of his life. Finally, for passages from the book, there was an expert voice actor hired to basically mimic Ebert’s old voice throughout the movie. The device works in parts, and after a while I just kind of accepted it. The cadence and delivery is as good as it could be, but it was still a little distracting knowing it wasn’t actually Ebert’s voice, but then again, it wasn’t like Steve James had access to a time machine here.
There were many notable periods of Ebert’s life covered here, including his long time partnership with Gene Siskel. Hilarious outtakes are shown and their relationship is broken down by those that knew them best. Siskel’s illness and death are compared to Ebert’s in this film, as Siskel, being a very private person kept his illness a secret to everyone right up until the last minute. Ebert, feeling perhaps a sting of painful betrayal in that, decided if something like that ever happened to him, he would be an open book in contrast.There’s too many subjects covered in this movie to break them all down and keep this review at a readable length, so I will attempt to wrap it up here. I loved this movie. It made me laugh. It made me cry, and it made me remember why I admired Ebert so much as a person to begin with.