This documentary on the life and death of critic Roger Ebert proved to be one of the more difficult films for me to review objectively; moving into my personal world as often as it did (without ever truly intending to).
Sure, I had the love/hate relationship many a horror fan had with this half of the formidable team of Siskel and Ebert. I blanched at many of his reviews and even spent an episode of the MANOR destroying "Egg-berts" in defense of martial arts movies, Godzilla and Lucio Fulci (the "blown egg" stunt was, of course, the best). But of course, I kept reading his reviews and there was always respect even when I tried to hide it... the man knew and loved movies and there was no getting around that. Even Chas. Balun knew and acknowledged that...
Ah, yes. Chas. Rhymes with Chaz, which happens to be the name of Roger's strong, loyal and courageous wife (who makes an indelible impression in this documentary by Steve James). Ah, yes. Steve James. Who just HAPPENS to have the same name as the late action superstar. Another friend of mine. Chas. and Steve were claimed much too early by the big C, and as I watched the once fat-and-proud Roger Ebert waste away before my eyes...
...well, no. We're not supposed to think like that. The movie is called LIFE ITSELF after Ebert's own memoirs, and this is supposed to be a celebration. Through voice-actor narration, archival footage and Ebert's own voice synthesizer we're allowed to see the triumphs and tribulations of the young hot-shot who bulldozed his way into the brotherhood of Chicago reporters, found himself assigned the vacant movie critic spot and took it to a then-unheard-of Pulitzer Prize and beyond; simultaneously making the journey of recovery from alcoholism (a journey that led him to meet his eventual bride, as she candidly recounts).
And as the late Gene Siskel was such an integral part of Ebert's life and career, he, too, receives his due here... as I happened across SNEAK PREVIEWS on PBS for the first time in the late 1970s (HALLOWEEN, etc.) I was never before privy to the astonishing candids featuring his long-abandoned handlebar mustache and his party-hearty lifestyle as part of the Hugh Hefner entourage!
Director James himself owes much of his career success (starting with HOOP DREAMS) due to Ebert's support; and along the way we also hear from such luminaries as Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, in particular, was so overwhelmed with the Siskel/Ebert praise of his work to date that it's quite an eye-opener to watch him re-live their candid skewering of THE COLOR OF MONEY... and when it comes to honest, in-your-face appraisals, there's also a hilarious clip of Chevy Chase's reaction when Ebert admitted on the air during THE TONIGHT SHOW that he didn't care for THREE AMIGOS...
Inevitably, the movie focuses on Ebert's last years; his battle with cancer and his determination to be as open and honest about it with his public as Gene Siskel had not (much to Ebert's sadness). His fight and attitude were always inspiring on the surface, but as the man himself said, a documentary ought to show "the entire truth," and the graphic hospital footage and Ebert's frustration at his lack of mobility (as well as Chaz's recounting of a note her husband handed her reading "Kill me") threaten to be devastating at times. But... he wanted us to see this, and it would have been wrong of James to pull away for the sake of our delicate feelings...
Okay, the horror specialists amongst us will be disappointed that LIFE ITSELF never deals directly with the post-FRIDAY THE 13TH slasher backlash that cemented the critical duo as "infamous" (although Ebert's controversial review of BLUE VELVET is addressed near the end of the doc), but of course, this was never intended as an exploration of Ebert's critical opinions--however, it's an unparalleled chance to get to know the man behind them.
As a documentary, it unquestionably 'works' and compels... but having watched Siskel and Ebert on television for almost their entire run together, I, too, got to make some critical observations regarding the power of the documentary director. And I'll happily share the most telling example. LIFE ITSELF is at its most entertaining when sharing the behind-the-scenes rivalry, antipathy and deep-rooted friendship between Siskel and Ebert; and the documentary features a clip of the two men standing in an elevator, looking at nothing but the blinking lights and offering not a word to each other. According to the movie we're watching, that was the constant, simmering tension between the two critics. EXCEPT... I saw that very same clip during a special episode of SNEAK PREVIEWS itself in which the duo tried to share the beginning-to-end process of reviewing a movie with the viewers. (I even remember that the movie was THE BLACK MARBLE.) And after the movie had screened, Siskel and Ebert headed to the elevator while Siskel narrated a very simple rule: "Roger and I NEVER discuss a movie before we've written our reviews." Hence the silence. Not exactly the same in that context, is it?
You'll want to pay attention... but if you love movies and have ever enjoyed the reviews of Roger Ebert, you'll want to see LIFE ITSELF.
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