Film review: LIFE ITSELF, from Built For Speed

Life Itself documents the life and career of possibly the world’s best known film critic, Roger Ebert.  This candid documentary explores his early journalistic career, student activism, his film reviewing for the Chicago Sun Times, his ground-breaking film review TV show with Gene Siskell and his battle with cancer.

The film is composed of readings from Ebert’s biography – also titled Life Itself, footage from TV, still photos and footage that director Steve James shot in Ebert’s hospital room.   Revealed is Ebert’s unusual, fascinating and often contradictory personality which was characterised by a sharp wit, an imposing intellect and a relentless work ethic as well as narcissism, dismissiveness of others and problems with alcohol.  Testament to Ebert’s unusual and surprising personality was the fact that he co-wrote the script for soft porn maestro Russ Meyer’s hilarious cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

James concentrates on Roger’s personal life, his desperate cancer fight that saw him lose most of his jaw, his re-invigoration though the opportunities offered by the internet and his relationships, particularly with wife Chaz and film reviewing partner Siskell.  The film details Ebert’s volatile love/hate relationship with Siskell and reveals some very snarky off-camera exchanges that make Margaret and David’s battles look quaint. It appears that Siskell and Ebert’s combative discussions about films were fuelled by genuine resentments toward one another as well as begrudging respect.

Life Itself does not detail Ebert’s beliefs about film so don’t expect comprehensive lists of favourite or most hated movies.  There are, however, some reminiscences about the experience of being a film critic: the intoxicating atmosphere of the Cannes Film Festival and the joys of experiencing a film classic such as Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.

The film also reveals that Ebert became very close with many stars particularly Martin Scorsese who co-produced this documentary. This closeness, of course, created some very awkward moments such as when Ebert panned Scorsese’s The Colour of Money.

The scenes of Ebert in 2013 ravaged by cancer are confronting but it’s inspiring to see the way he maintains his sly wit and enthusiasm for movies and for life. It’s also very moving to watch his wife Chaz’s unfailing dedication to him.  Life Itself is a fine summation of Roger Ebert’s career and personality but with such a remarkable person there is inevitably much more to tell.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Documentary/ biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Steve James.

Release date: 8th January 2015.

Running time: 120 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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