Director: Steve James
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Gene Siskel
In 1994, Roger Ebert was a huge champion of the documentary Hoop Dreams by director Steve James. He included the film in his top ten of 1994 list and later placed it in the top spot on his favorite films of the 1990s list. It is only fitting that James is the man behind the camera for a documentary about Ebert. As a film critic and movie lover, my days of reading Roger’s reviews and watching him spar with Gene Siskel go back as far as I can remember to when I was a little kid watching movies instead of playing outside with the other neighbor kids. I actually do remember watching the episode where they discussed Hoop Dreams.
When this documentary was in its early stages, it was going to be an adaptation of Roger’s memoir “Life Itself”. I knew the potential of how fascinating and inspirational this film could be after devouring every page cover to cover. The film took a slightly different angle after he died five months into production. Like many documentaries covering someone’s life, it traces back to his early days. We get introduced to his family via old photographs and recalls his days as a student at University of Illinois. He was a young journalist that always seemed to be in control and was far smarter and arrogant than most people in his position. Many nights were spent drinking with friends and colleagues in the bar that led to his bout with alcoholism. As most people know, he later went on to become the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and gained notoriety with his TV show with fellow Chicago film critic and “rival” Gene Siskel.
Throughout this look back at his life and career, the film cuts back to Roger and his wife Chaz in his final months and weeks as he struggles to survive despite the many years of battling cancer and the numerous surgeries that he underwent as potential treatment options. You wouldn’t be able to tell Roger’s story without talking about his courageous and loving wife Chaz whom he met later on in life at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There is no denying the love they had for each other and the love Roger gave to her children and their grandchildren. Some of the hospital scenes may be too hard to watch for some viewers as it can be a bit graphic. I give him and Chaz credit for being so open, honest, and raw about what he went through and allowing it to be shown on camera.
As a film critic, Roger Ebert was a critic for the people. He had a way of dissecting a film and commenting on it in a way that was easy for anyone to understand. You didn’t have to be a film scholar to understand his writing. He had a passion for film that he effortlessly displayed in his writing. He was known to crank out his reviews that felt personable and honest in under thirty minutes. I wish I could do the same thing. Another admirable trait that seems to be forgotten with other critics is that he knew out to review a movie in context. There is a wonderful episode of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies when Gene and Roger have one of their sparring matches over their reviews of Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted. Gene was appalled that Roger gave thumbs up to Benji the Hunted and dismissed Full Metal Jacket. Roger went on to discuss reviewing them in context and that you can’t compare these two polar opposite movies. It’s a must watch episode for any fan of theirs. Other film critics like A.O. Scott and Richard Corliss discuss his legacy and the power he had over the art of film criticism. He even became friends with many filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog and other independent filmmakers who also share the influence Roger had on their lives.
For someone that has been a huge admirer of Roger’s, his death touched me like it did for so many people that grew up aspiring to be like him or anyone else that loved going to the movies. Every Saturday night I sat down with my notebook and jotted down which way the thumbs went for every movie they reviewed. It didn’t matter if it was the big studio movies I was familiar with or the random independent films that I had never heard of. They all made it into my notebook. I remember going on strike with them after Independence Day came out. I was thirteen and vowed to stop watching if they gave it “Two Thumbs Down”. Sure enough, I went on strike, but it didn’t last very long. I wrote this article after he died as a tribute to someone that has truly influenced me and continues to do to this day. I still go back and read his past reviews on a weekly basis. I looked at Robert Altman’s 3 Women in a different light after reading his entry in one of his “The Great Movies” series.
Life Itself is further proof of his tenacity and fight to keep living. He didn’t let his cancer get in the way of his work as he found a new way to use his voice as a film critic. He continued to write on his blog and used social media to reach a whole new audience of moviegoers. He wanted to be open and honest without ever feeling like he had to hide or keep his waning health private. The film demonstrates that he speaks to a broader audience than just film critics and movie buffs. His philosophy and outlook on life is applicable to all. It’s truly inspirational to watch someone battle cancer, yet never give up on life thanks to his love of Chaz, the movies, and everything else life had to offer.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Life Itself is one of the best documentaries I have seen in a very long time.
RATING: 5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS