Life Itself

Life Itself ★★★½

LIFE ITSELF (Steve James, USA, 2014, 7)

I went in a little suspicious that it might merely be a pander to film critics and buffs. And while people who watch movies and/or read Sundance blogs pretty much would have to be pre-sold on “Roger Ebert documentary,” Steve James made a film with enough elements of broader interest to be recommended on other grounds and for other folk. Don’t get me wrong: Life Itself is very much about movies, criticism, Gene Siskel and all the surrounding issues and anecdotes already well-known to the likes of myself; I blogged years ago about how Amadeus and Ebert’s review of it were the events that pushed me into this field. But there’s more here on a couple of subjects than I expected—dying and alcoholism—that can personally matter to non-film-folk. Ebert died with the full knowledge of the public, if with fewer pictures than before because of his damaged face. Life Itself shows us these images unblinkingly and how the burdens of the body don’t generally (but do sometimes) get to Ebert and wife Chaz. With an assist from James in voiceover, she describes last days that could be anybody’s, and how they were affected by Siskel’s dying months, which he kept private and away from Ebert, leaving the latter hurt and determined not to do that. As for booze, in the typical Ebert profile it's usually a sentence or two at most. Here, we get a lot more about it, about how central to his early adulthood—especially as tied to the culture of newspapering—were drinking and related activities and how deep the spiral went. While Life Itself breaks no new aesthetic ground, neither did Hoop Dreams, a James film Ebert helped succeed. It’s a clean and efficiently told account of a well-led life, itself.
First published at SLC Weekly: