Roger Ebert was the movies – Barack Obama
Has there ever been a more true statement then the words that came out of President Obama’s mouth after the passing of Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert wasn’t just a man who reviewed films, he embraced them and loved them like no other critic ever has. Roger Ebert is without debate the greatest film critic of all time, who alongside partner Gene Siskel, revolutionized modern day film criticism and made it a pop culture phenomenon. Even if you never ever watched Siskel and Ebert and the Movies, you are aware of the famous “Two Thumbs Up” rating system. Life Itself a brilliant documentary, allows us to look at Rogers love for not only movies, but friends, Gene, family, his wife and of course most of all life itself.
Life Itself is directed by Steve James, who’s films Roger always supported and loved. James 1994 film Hoop Dreams was a film Roger loved so much (he called it the best film of the 90’s) that he relentlessly campaigned for it success. James himself will even admitted that if it wasn’t for Roger’s strong support that film would have never been the success it was. Life Itself is also executive produced by Martin Scorsese, who Roger wrote the first ever review of Marty’s first film, giving it a rave and saying, “In 10 years this guy is going to be the American Fellini (he was dead on!). Roger never disliked one of Martin’s film and they became good friends. I could only imagine the joy and excitement that Roger must have felt when he realized that these two film directors who he help so much, and became such good friends with, were making his life picture. Life Itself tells Roger’s entire life story, from his childhood right up to his death. Using old photographs, talking head interviews with friends, fellow critics, directors and family and of course footage of Roger and his wife in what would be Roger’s final year. When James started filming this project he could have never guessed that he would be capturing the final moments of Ebert’s life and it gives the who project a very special feel.
Steve James gives a brutally honest portrait of the man that Roger Ebert was. We hear the stories about how great a man he was but we also get Siskel’s wife saying how big his ego could be, and friends saying that he could be a complete jerk a lot of the time. James turns the camera’s on the one’s who knew Ebert the best and he lets them speak the absolute truth, giving us an amazingly in depth look into the man that Roger really was behind the camera.
The most fascinating moments of the film are the stock footage involving himself and Gene Siskel. We get to see some never before seen behind the scenes footage of Gene and Roger filming a preview for one of their shows, and we watch as Ebert just criticizes Gene over and over again, until Gene finally snaps and calls him an asshole. It was riveting stuff to watch and shows you that though those two became very good friends, there was a time when they absolutely hated each other.
Life Itself contains passages from Ebert Memoir Life Itself, a book that went into very deep detail about Roger Ebert and gave us a lot of facts we never knew about him. Yet somehow this documentary is still able to shock us with facts that we never knew, including how Roger meet the love of his life Chaz in an AA meeting and that even Roger was kept out of the loop about Gene’s brain cancer. Its little moments like that, which really made this film stand out to me. It was able to continue to teach me something new about a person I thought I knew everything about.
We all know that Roger lost his voice in 2006 after a surgery that went wrong, and though we get to hear old footage of Roger’s voice through the TV clips and conferences, Roger had to use a voice computer to do the talking for him. It is fantastic to see Ebert doing all the hand gestures and actions as he is letting the computer do his talking. Roger never ever lost his passion for life and it is never more clear in those scenes. Stephen Stanton provides an eerily perfect impression of Ebert’s voice in the voice over moments in the film.
Yet what I love most about Life Itself is that it is a love story, not between Roger and the movies, but rather between Roger and his wife Chaz. Roger has always talked with passion about the love for his wife and you get to see them here in some of their most intimate moments here. We watch as Chaz argues with Roger about turning on music before he gets his throat suctioned. Chaz is just trying to make it easier for the nurse and Roger is just trying to make what is clearly an extremely painful moment, a little less so. The heartbreak in Chaz face when we learn that Roger’s cancer has come back, is one of the most heartbreaking moments I can remember in a film. She is trying to be strong but you can just tell she is devastated beyond words.
I could never ever say enough things about how Roger Ebert inspired me on a personally level. If it wasn’t for Roger I wouldn’t even be here writing his piece, he inspired not only my love for movies but for film criticism as well. Roger Ebert was one of my personal hero’s and Life Itself is one of the most moving, pieces of film making I have ever seen. I couldn’t picture a better way to tell Roger’s life story, then with the people involved in this film. It is one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen, and is one of the greatest films I will ever seen in my life time. To quote my hero one last time … Life Itself gets Two very enthusiastic Thumbs WAY WAY Up!