For anyone who grew up loving film, Steve James’ Life Itself is impossible to criticize objectively. Roger Ebert is someone I’ve admired and looked up to for most of my life, and the film is poignant, funny, and heartbreaking. In the hands of the talented Steve James, Life Itself is also very well made, and offers a revealing glimpse at Roger Ebert the film critic, and the man.
Shot during the last four months of Ebert’s life, when he had lost most of his jaw and was unable to eat or speak, he never seemed to lose his sense of humor or his passion for films. In a taped speech at the start of the documentary, he calls the movies “a machine that generates empathy.” Whatever, those interviewed in Life Itself may think of Roger, his life, and work, they all agree that film was his passion.
Growing up an only child in Urbana, Illinois, (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) he describes himself as a born writer. While attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he worked as a reporter for the Daily Illini and then served as its editor during his senior year. From there, he was hired to be the city editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. After the film critic left in 1967, Ebert was given the job, and he began crafting a style that would become legend.
Much of Ebert’s story is told by the man himself, in his own voice, before cancer robbed him of his jaw. James also includes interviews with old friends who discuss his active libido, bar-hopping, and his tendency to by the entire place a round. His battle with alcohol is discussed openly, and how he eventually got sober in 1979. He met the love of his life, Chaz Ebert at an A.A. meeting.
One of the most interesting aspects of Life Itself is the examination of the relationship between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and their popular show. When Gene Siskel joined the Sun-Times, they weren’t close friends—they didn’t speak for five years. When they were approached to work on a TV show designed to feature to movie critics, neither wanted to work with each other. While it turned out to be the perfect odd coupling for viewers, their relationship was fraught with tension, as shown by several outtakes included in the film. Gene Siskel’s widow provides some of the film’s most emotional moments, with her candid observations of their unusual relationship.
Life Itself is a fitting tribute to not just a man who was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, but a cultural icon. Best of all, Life Itself documents a man enjoying life, despite physical deterioration and unspeakable pain. Ebert’s enthusiasm is infectious, making this worthy viewing for all, even those with little interest in film.
Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Magnolia’s 1080p transfer is a solid one. The newer footage has amazing image clarity throughout, and black levels are pleasing. Colors are bright and vivid, with no bleeding issues. Flesh tones appear lifelike, and textures are impressive.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track provides a nice sense of presence. Dialogue is clear and front loaded, with a nice sense of range. For an interview heavy documentary, this track is fine.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 22:35) Several more stories about Roger Ebert here. One wishes these were included in a future “Director’s Cut” of some kind.
- Sundance Tribute (HD, 6:54) Best described as a long sizzle reel for the film.
- Interview with Director Steve James (HD, 10:41) James offers his thoughts on the project and Ebert himself.
- AXS TV: A Look At Life Itself (HD, 2:22) A trailer of sorts.