Life Itself, the first ever feature-length documentary on the life of Roger Ebert, covers the prolific critic's life journey from his days at the University of Illinois, to his move to Chicago where he became the first film critic ever to win the Pulitzer Prize, then to television where he and Gene Siskel became iconic stars, and finally to what Roger referred to as "his third act"; how he overcame disabilities wrought by cancer to became a major voice on the internet and through social media.
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) has conducted interviews with over two dozen people, including lifelong friends, professional colleagues, the first ever interview with Gene Siskel's wife, and filmmakers Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Ramin Bahrani, Gregory Nava, Ava DuVernay, and Martin Scorsese, who is one of the executive producers along with Steven Zaillian.
"This movie is a love story really –– Roger's love for movies, for Chaz, and even in his own way, his love for Gene. Ultimately, though, it's a film about Roger's love for life itself." (Steve James).
Whatever small success I've had as a movie reviewer over the years (and granted, it's pretty small), I owe an immeasurable chunk of it to Roger Ebert. Growing up in the late 1970s/early 1980s, while many my age would be out doing other things on a Friday night, I was glued to my TV set waiting for the local news to end so I could flip over to PBS and watch Ebert and his colleague, Gene Siskel, review the latest crop of movies on Sneak Previews. Then, on Saturday, if I was lucky, I'd get one of my parents to drop me off at the local theater to check out a film that the duo had highly recommended the night before. So while other kids spent their childhoods outside playing with their friends, I spent much of mine alone in the dark…and it was wonderful.
Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) probably had a good idea when he agreed to helm this documentary (which is based on Ebert's autobiography of the same name) that Roger's time on this Earth was limited, but I doubt he could have imagined that he'd be filming some of Ebert's final moments, as Roger passed during the shooting of the movie. To Roger's (and his wife, Chaz's) credit, pretty much unlimited access is provided to their lives, even when it's obvious that Ebert doesn't have much longer left. Roger, of course, was suffering from thyroid cancer which had resulted (thanks to unsuccessful surgeries) in the removal of his lower jaw and his inability to speak (or drink or eat for that matter), but the movie doesn't shy away from showing Roger as he really was in his final days – a man whose body was failing him, but who never lost his passion for writing and film.
'Life Itself' also doesn't pull any punches when it comes to detailing Roger's past. We learn of his rise to fame, starting in college as a writer for the University of Illinois' Daily Illini, which led to a desk job at The Chicago Sun-Times. When the movie reviewer at the newspaper resigned, Roger was assigned his job. The documentary details how Ebert became popular among his fellow writers and colleagues, but it also relates how Roger became addicted to alcohol during that period. Later, we learn – for the first time anywhere – that it was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where Roger first met his wife-to-be, Chaz.
The movie is peppered with 'talking head' interviews with many of Roger's closest friends and fellow critics, but some of the most enjoyable comments come from one of America's greatest directors, Martin Scorsese. Here, he details how it was Ebert (as well as Gene Siskel) who brought attention to one of Scorsese's first movies, 'Who's That Knocking At My Door?" (aka 'I Call First'), with Ebert predicting that Scorsese would be one of the greatest living filmmakers in another 10 years…to which Scorsese responded, 'Do you think it will be that long?!
Of course, no story about Roger's life would be complete without including the late Gene Siksel, and to Director James' credit, he devotes a big chunk of the middle of the movie to both the working and personal relationship between the two men. In many ways, 'Life Itself' is a tribute to Siskel as much as it is Ebert, and just about everything you thought about the two men appears to be true: yes, they seemed to hate each other just as much as they appeared to on TV, and, yes, they secretly seemed to love each other as much as we hoped they might. We learn here that, after Gene's passing, on one of the anniversaries of his death, Roger spent a day tweeting his memories of Siskel online. Gene's widow (who appears in the documentary) reached out to Roger and thanked him for doing that, to which Roger replied with a heartfelt letter, a portion of which is read in the movie. It's the most emotional moment of James' documentary, and any viewer that can get through hearing that letter with dry eyes is a stronger person than I am.
'Life Itself' is a wonderful, honest tribute to a man who will probably be remembered as the world's last great movie critic. It's hard to imagine anyone else coming along who, in the age of the Internet, will have the kind of universal influence on moviegoers that Roger Ebert had. We didn't always agree with Roger when it came to which movies he recommended or panned, but we always respected his opinion and – just as importantly – he respected ours, never being condescending to his readers and, in his later days as an online blogger, often joining them in entertaining back and forths about the movies we all loved (and hated). I can't imagine any serious lover of film who wouldn't want 'Life Itself' to be part of his or her movie collection.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Life Itself' arrives on Blu-ray in an Elite eco-friendly keepcase, which houses the single dual-layer 50GB disc, with no inserts. The Blu-ray is front-loaded with trailers for 'Serena', The Two Faces of January, Force Majeure, and 'Ballet 422'. There's also a pair of advertisements for the Chideo website and AXS TV. The main menu is a combination of the image on the box cover combined with video clips from the movie playing in the background. Menu selections are on the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-ray is Region A-locked.
The presentation of 'Life Itself' is a combination of digital camerawork, archival video from earlier in Ebert's career (including many clips of the various renditions of his 'Siskel & Ebert' program), and photographic stills. The digital camera work is mostly strong, although thanks to all those white walls that hospitals seem to insist on having, some of the footage with Roger comes off as a little brighter than one might hope, with some noise often creeping into those solid white backgrounds. Otherwise, the movie is pretty good looking, aside from some of those archival video segments, which – of course – are due to their own quality and not the actual transfer here.
In the few instances where Director Steve James actually gets his camera outside (like in the opening shots out on the streets of Chicago), there's a nice range of color and sharpness to the video presentation. However, since 'Life Itself' is primarily a 'talking heads' kind of documentary, there's not that kind of depth of image throughout the majority of the movie. Still, this is a solid presentation, with no real problematic issues, and no serious issues or glitches.
The only audio option on this release is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, that more than serves the needs of this movie, as it almost exclusively consists of dialogue, with very little in terms of ambient noises or sounds. With that in mind, though, there's really not much for the surround speakers to do here, other than enhance the musical score. As you might guess, there are a number of film clips spread throughout 'Life Itself', and there the track shows a little more 'oomph', although certainly not as much as if you'd own those movies themselves (although, ironically, a couple of the movies we get extended clips of – like 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' – have yet to make it to Blu-ray).
So, despite getting a lossless track, there's really not a whole lot going on here in terms of an aural experience, but there's also nothing in terms of glitches like audio dropouts or hissing problems (even the older, archival video clips have had their audio restored nicely, although they're not quite as crisp as the original footage in the movie). The result is a track that may not impress (nor is it intended to), but more importantly, doesn't distract from one's enjoyment of the movie.
In addition to the lossless audio, subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
The world may never see the likes of Roger Ebert again. He managed to take film criticism from the stuffy, intellectual ramblings one would find in the Arts section of their newspaper to a mainstream passion of almost every serious filmgoer on the planet – and he managed to do so without ever being condescending to his readers/viewers, although he loved being condescending to a horrible film. 'Life Itself' is a wonderful tribute to the man, showing us Ebert as he really was, without feeling the need to filter out his faults or shortcomings. I can't imagine any lover of movies who wouldn't want this release as part of their permanent collection. It's a must-own.