The long-running American TV show Siskel and Ebert at the Movies was never shown here in the UK (or, if it was, it must have been on at the kind of time when most people are in bed, sound asleep) and so I wasn’t aware of either Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert until I happened to catch their review of Terminator 2: Judgement Day while on holiday in a Florida hotel room back in 1991. I don’t recall reading anything by the prolific Ebert in my younger years, either, despite the fact that his reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times were syndicated to hundreds of newspapers around the world. Yet thanks to the easy access to video and written archives we enjoy today it’s possible to watch clips from the show and to belatedly discover Ebert’s opinion on thousands of movies, ranging from popular blockbusters like Superman to obscure works like Shalako, a long-forgotten 1968 western implausibly starring Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot.
It’s difficult to say whether Ebert was a household name or not on these shores by the time he died in 2013, despite being well-known to those with an interest in film and, particularly, film criticism. The image of Siskel and Ebert giving their thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a movie may be a memorable one, but most Brits of a certain age would probably cite Barry Norman or Jonathan Ross as the most notable film critics they know, if asked. Even so, I expect anyone would enjoy Life Itself, a documentary charting Ebert’s life from adolescence all the way up to his death after years of illness. It’s a relatively straightforward portrait of a life and career, but it’s informative and extremely moving, and it does justice to this great writer and dedicated fan of the movies.
Made by Steve James, the film offers what seems to be a balanced view of the writer’s professional and personal life, using Ebert’s candid book of the same name as a guide and incorporating interviews with a range of friends and colleagues (including a visibly-moved Martin Scorsese). It details his rise to prominence as a critic (interestingly he was given the job as movie reviewer for the Sun-Times in an arbitrary fashion, rather than it being something he sought out) but contrasts it with his heavy drinking, which led to alcoholism. It celebrates the success of his TV partnership with Siskel but, salaciously, reveals just how fractious their relationship was (both on- and off-camera; the outtakes are uncomfortable to sit through, and fascinating). And it warmly celebrates his life with wife Chaz and their extended family while recognising the struggle they faced for 11 years as Ebert battled cancer.
In later life Ebert was unable to speak, the result of several operations that saw the removal of tissue and more from his throat, mouth and jaw. He relied on a computerised voice system, and therefore many of the interviews conducted with the writer for the purposes of this documentary, and his readings from the book version of Life Itself, use this electronic voice. It cannot, of course, obfuscate his sharp sense of humour, and although he lost his own voice the illness thankfully didn’t preclude him from writing; in fact he posted a final blog post just two days before he died, which looks positively to the future despite clearly acting as a thank you and goodbye to fans.
Two years later it’s still a shame to think that there will be no more new reviews from Roger Ebert, but his online archive is part of a great legacy, and his achievements are deservedly celebrated here through an array of fascinating photographs, stories and testaments. Two enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Directed by: Steve James.
Written by: Based on Life Itself by Roger Ebert.
Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert.
Cinematography: Dana Kupper.
Editing: Steve James, David E. Simpson.
Music: Joshua Abrams.
Running Time: 120 minutes.