Life Itself is two stories moving in parallel. One is a celebration of the legacy of film critic Roger Ebert; the other is a study of the man himself. Ebert, who’d been battling cancer, passed away while Life Itself was being filmed, which makes the personal interludes with Ebert and his wife Chaz all the more poignant in their immediacy. With glimpses of Ebert’s home life at the end of a prolonged illness, director Steve James tells a story of the death of someone who, for many moviegoers, feels like one of the family.
The other story James tells is Ebert’s life. Part archive and part celebration, Life Itself chronicles Ebert’s career: his early days (including joining AA), his Pulitzer, even Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. His contentious relationship with Gene Siskel offers the closest thing to dirty dish, and even then it’s some between-takes sniping everyone agrees ended in friendship. But Life Itself doesn’t lean on drama—Ebert’s influence is big enough without it. How big? Well, it’s hard to overstate, as glimpses of screenings and discussion of TV fame suggest. Archival footage is telling (he pans Three Amigos in front of Chevy Chase), and Martin Scorsese talks about Ebert’s support for smaller films, which shaped careers and often led to friendship. (It’s too cozy for some of his colleagues, but there was a shared-sandbox feeling about Ebert’s enthusiasm.)
The occasional raw edges suggest fallibility without quite becoming expose, and his candidness both in work and life take center stage. That honesty refreshes this love letter to a man whose work has been both so influential and so happily influenced. “However you came to know me,” Ebert writes in his blog near movie’s end, “I’m glad you did.” And because it’s Ebert, we know what he means.