I first heard of Roger Ebert when he died on April 4, 2013 from an update on my phone. Then he was just a film critic to me, he wasn’t a hero, he wasn’t a magnificent writer, he was just a critic that seemed worthy of a CNN update. It wasn’t until around a year later that I would discover how amazing of a human being I had heard pass from this world. In the Spring of 2014 I was rummaging through film reviews on the Internet when I came across RogerEbert.com, Ebert’s website. The names were unfamiliar but when I took the chance to look up a movie I had recently seen that had come out a few years back I found a review by Mr. Ebert and my world was turned upside down. Not only did he fully understand what the film was about to me, but his prose and writing style was something wholly new and unique to me. I was hooked instantly.
A couple of months later news came in that a documentary on Roger’s life, Life Itself, was to be on CNN, and I recorded it, and instantly watched it the next day. I found a whole new side to a writer whose reviews I had admired, now he had become a whole human being before my eyes. From his childhood in Champaign, Illinois, to receiving a Pulitzer Prize, from his television show with Gene Siskel, to his marriage and family life, I was enthralled. Like any great biography the writer Roger Ebert leapt from the page, or screen in this case, and become Roger, a friend. That is the power of not only Roger Ebert’s life story, but the majesty of the documentary based off of Roger’s memoir and the documentary based off of it by his friend and director Steve James, also known for Hoop Dreams.
The film opens with a paraphrasing of the opening quote as the book: “I was born inside the movie of my life. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.” Well, that’s not entirely correct. As Roger would have wanted it, the film opens on a movie theater that flashes in glowing red and orange lights. That his name graces it for a tribute is pointless, what is important is that inside this grand cinema there is a huge crowd of participants, enjoying the films the late Ebert loved. From there the film proceeds like a seamless paraphrasing of Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, and there is not one second wasted therein. Combining precious family photos and personal testimony to recreate Roger’s childhood, and slowly introducing the cast of characters that inhabited his world, including the late Richard Corliss, various friends from the journalistic world, Marlene, his late partner’s wife, and Ebert’s own wife Chaz.
Through this movie and the one it captures from snapshots of Ebert’s life, Life Itself captures every major advance while mixing in endearing stories about Ebert’s drunken escapades before joining AA and his love for the Cannes film festival. This is all inter-cut with footage of Ebert in the hospital as he and his family and friends struggle to come to terms with his own mortality. From his earliest reviews of the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Ebert’s own attempt at screenwriting for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and the creation of the website that made a fan of me, the genius of this film is to introduce Ebert to a new audience willing to know him, educate everyone of the volume and greatness of his writing, and masterfully endearing them to his world through something that we must all go through, that process of growing old, falling in love, and facing our end. From this the film has three layers: Roger the great friend and confidant, Roger Ebert the writer and journalist, and Roger, the dying man who sees the friends and family he has cultivated stand by him in his time of need.
Steve James’ previous work on Hoop Dreams, which Roger loved and added to his Great Movies collection in 2001, is almost perfect at preparing him to capture this life on film. James’ work on Hoop Dreams captures the adolescence of a pair of inner-city African-American basketball players and their struggles to balance the life of a student with that of an athlete and a teenager. James manages a similar three-pronged balancing act here, and with the added personality of Roger Ebert he has his work simplified. Even on his deathbed, Ebert glows with energy and brings the audience to laughter and tears through the raising of a thumb or the click of a button. Reduced to a laptop program for speech, his wife Chaz sums it up thus, “People care about what you have to say, not how you have to say it.” What Roger had to say touched not only the lives of those who knew him, but also some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and some of the greatest artists of this century in Ava DuVernay and Ramin Bahrani.
It’s in that way, of being able to touch so many people through his warmth and through his words, big and small, that Ebert so compares to the very art form he loved. Like a great movie that can emote and inspire us, the story of Roger Ebert’s life will find a way to connect to every viewer. Thus not only does it make for a great film, but Life Itself captures just that, the good and the bad, the personal and the public, in a way that is guaranteed to entertain and endear to you. That is why I cannot recommend this film enough to anyone who is willing to watch. And like any great movie based off of true events, even if you know the ending you may not be prepared for the presentation and the effect it may have on you. So watch, enjoy, and, as Roger would say, I’ll see you at the movies.