Directed by Steve James
Life Itself recounts the surprising and entertaining life of renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert. The film details his early days as a freewheeling bachelor and Pulitzer Prize winner, his famously contentious partnership with Gene Siskel, his life-altering marriage, and his brave and transcendent battle with cancer.
See more films
★★★★ review by Filmspotting on Letterboxd
Director Steve James came to one of my U. of Chicago cinéma vérité classes for a Q&A, and Filmspotting donated money to the Indiegogo campaign to complete this doc. You'll find the show name listed in the credits, amongst a multitude of other eager contributors.
So there are my disclosures -- though unlike most Chicago critics whose comments you might read or hear, I don't have to bother disclosing a personal connection to the subject. I never met Roger Ebert. As I mentioned during our tribute to him last April, he responded to an email I sent him once, disputing something he said in his review of Woody Allen's SWEET AND LOWDOWN... And I sat in front of him at the cozy Lake St. screening room for a viewing of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. I think there were only two other critics in the room, and I remember being very conscious of his presence as the movie concluded. What was he experiencing emotionally, intellectually, I wondered, as he watched Caden Cotard so starkly confront his mortality? His review offered some insight:
Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die.
A year or so later he named SYNECDOCHE the best film of the decade. I don't know whether James gave much consideration to it or this particular review when making LIFE ITSELF, but perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay him and his film is that -- along with everything it uncloaks about Ebert's boundless capacity for love (of cinema, newspapers, his wife and colleagues), and his relentless determination in the face of despair -- it reveals to us how an only child from little Champaign-Urbana came out of himself and unfolded into the world. Realized his greatest desires. Folded back into himself, and then died.
★★★★ review by Matt Singer on Letterboxd
LIFE ITSELF opens with Roger Ebert's famous quote about cinema as an empathy machine, and in its best moments Steve James' documentary about Ebert's life embodies that philosophy in a way few films do.
My admiration for (and, in later years, acquaintance with) the subject means my opinion should be taken with at least a couple grains of salt. In some ways, though, I might be a tougher audience for the film than most. After all, I know a lot about this guy's life already, and it's conceivable that one could make a version of this doc that would bore me with platitudes and familiar stories. Thankfully, James mixes Ebert's more famous escapades with more unexpected anecdotes and touches. And the footage of Ebert in the hospital and at home in his final days is very powerful; the moment that combines a friend's reading of the last page of THE GREAT GATSBY with shots of Ebert struggling in rehab really hit me hard. There are several moments like that.
It is a bit of a "And then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened..." bio-doc, but by the end of the film, that accumulates into something profound, and Ebert becomes less the subject of the movie than the delivery device for its idea, one he strongly believed in: that our time on earth is precious, and that the movies help us understand the beauty and tragedy of our journey here a little bit better.
★★★★ review by Aaron on Letterboxd
“The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”
I have no way of reviewing Life Itself objectively. Not as I wipe the tears from my eyes.
Roger Ebert did not make me love the movies. But he helped me appreciate them in ways deeper and broader than I otherwise would have known possible. Reading his reviews, with their impeccable balance of the conversational and the insightful, the welcoming and the sophisticated, I became aware of how much the movies could say. How much they could show. How they could teach you and inspire you and change you.
When I write about movies—one of my favorite pastimes—I often think of the many hours I spent reading Ebert’s reviews, eagerly awaiting his dispatches from Cannes, his next entry in his “Great Movies” series, his Oscar prognostications. I can only dream that one day my writing would be even half as good as his, or that I would live a life one-tenth as full of love and purpose and principle as he did.
But I needn’t cry too much. Because the Letterboxd community proves that one lesson Ebert taught lives on: The movies are a machine generating empathy. As I interact with the wonderful folks here, reading their thoughts and seeing (and receiving) their encouragement, I’m always heartened by the generosity of spirit and respect for others consistently exhibited. Like the movies, Letterboxd is a machine that generates, and thrives upon, empathy. And like Ebert, Letterboxd has meant quite a lot to me.
Thank you, Roger, for reaching out and touching so very many lives, including mine. And thank you, Letterboxd friends, for sharing and listening to the different stories we all have to tell. I’m so glad we can all keep seeing each other at the movies.
★★★★ review by Esteban Gonzalez on Letterboxd
“Look at a movie that a lot of people love and you'll find something profound no matter how silly the film may seem.”
Life Itself is a touching documentary directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters) about the life of the beloved film critic, Roger Ebert. The documentary is based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name, Life Itself, and it follows his journey as a young boy growing up in a small Illinois town, his education and early success as a print journalist, his struggle with alcoholism, his achievements at the Sun-Times as a film critic which garnered him a Pulitzer Prize, his marriage to Chaz, his collaboration with Siskel on their national televised show At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert, all the way to his long battle with cancer that claimed his life. You don’t have to know who Ebert was to be touched by the film because James does a fantastic job of capturing the key role he played in film criticism. On the one hand this documentary works as a memoir of a beloved man but it also works on its own as a solid research on the history of film criticism and how it has evolved from print to TV and now to the internet. The film never shies away from the criticism Ebert received for simplifying his reviews for the TV format and changing the way the game was played, but it does defend his passion for movies and the way he wanted to engage in a normal conversation with everyone about the importance of movies and how they impacted his life. His reviews helped many aspiring young directors to get noticed and there are some fascinating and touching testimonies from Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani, Werner Herzog, and Ava DuVernay about how Ebert made a difference in their careers.
Personally, I was always interested in reading what Ebert had to say about the new films that were being released. When I watched a movie that I really liked, I wanted to know what Ebert thought about it. There were many films I would’ve never heard of if it weren’t for the positive reviews he gave some independent projects. Ebert was always my favorite critic once I began to feel passionate about movies as an art form and he introduced me to film criticism as well. If it weren’t for his TV show I probably wouldn’t have been interested in actually engaging in discussions about movies and how they influence our lives. I began watching him when he did the show with Richard Roeper (who unfortunaltey isn’t in this documentary), but I have watched many clips of his earlier show with Siskel. I don’t follow many celebrities on Twitter, but Ebert was one of the few I was always looking forward to reading. His dedication and love for film are beautifully captured in this documentary as he found refugee from his battle with cancer through watching and criticizing movies. The support he received from his loving wife is also very touching and Life Itself delivers several emotional moments. It is a documentary that every film lover should experience even if they don’t have a clue of who Ebert was.
The highlights of Life Itself are without a doubt the scenes where Ebert and Siskel are together. These two rival critics had a huge ego and there is plenty of footage where you can actually see them fighting like two brothers would in real live. I am glad they decided to include those scenes because it does show the love hate relationship they and I think that was the ingredient that made the show so successful. The testimonies from Scorsese and DuVernay are also quite emotional because it showed what a great person Ebert was and how ahead of the curve he was in film criticism. The scenes where he is in the hospital are also solid and Ebert is not afraid of letting the audience see the effect that the cancer had on him. Despite it all he always kept an upbeat and humorous attitude towards life and the documentary does a good job at pointing out how much the movies and his family helped him through his battles. Life Itself is a great tribute to Ebert’s life and his film legacy. Each time I watch a new movie I wonder what Ebert might have thought about it, and it is a shame there are not many critics who can write like him.
★★★★½ review by Scott Anderson on Letterboxd
Full disclosure: I grew up on the film criticism of Roger Ebert. Living just outside Chicago my entire life, when I wanted to read a print review of a new release I would turn to the Chicago Sun-Times and soak in the words of Ebert. Every chance I had to watch At the Movies, I would find myself in front of the television to hear the wonderful banter and debate between Siskel and Ebert. In a world before I could rely on various websites that would simplify the process, grouping hundreds of reviews in one location to form a consensus, I only knew of those two gentleman and their opinions. Whether or not their thumbs went up or down was a major influence on my young mind.
I felt the need to clear this up right off the bat because I will admit, this bias entering the experience of the film Life Itself may have enhanced my overall opinion of it. However, please understand that just because I loved and looked up to Ebert doesn't mean I held his word to be gospel. Often times I would disagree with him and wonder what in the hell he could have been seeing or not seeing in a film, but even when I felt like he and I were a million miles apart with our opinions, I never stopped appreciating his passion for film. Ebert wasn't cynical, he never acted like he was above anyone and he never came off as snobby. He broke down a film in a way that I could understand even at a young age, he loved what he did for a living and you could feel it in every word he wrote.
Life Itself is a documentary made by Steve James, the man behind incredible works like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, and I found so much joy within these two hours I am taking my time coming up with the proper words to do the feelings justice. Even at its most heartbreaking given the fate of the beloved subject, at its core this is a film that celebrates a life rather than mourns the loss of it. We are allowed into not only the life of Roger Ebert but also the various relationships that shaped him throughout his existence, and the emotional words from the people he was closest to resonated deeply with me.
The aspect of this film that I was most impressed by was the fact that James knew he couldn't merely throw together a giant love fest for Ebert, he couldn't just paint a picture of perfection that may have been what people wanted to hear but it wouldn't be real. The film is mostly positive, and it should be considering what an example of warmth and optimism the man was, but it isn't afraid to delve into topics such as his battle with alcoholism, his taste in women (and even the occasional prostitute) prior to meeting the love of his life, and the ugly moments between himself and his on screen partner Gene Siskel. It's important to understand that just because someone appears on television and seems to have their shit together doesn't mean they are perfect. Nobody is perfect, and even the most famous people on the planet fight their flaws and their inner demons. When you honor a life, you must honor everything, the good and the bad. It was his life, and even when things weren't perfect, Roger Ebert truly lived.
Everything I had hoped for when I first learned of this documentary came true. I got to experience nostalgic warmth but also learn something new about a man I admired deeply. I laughed repeatedly but I cried only once, but trust me, it was a good cry. As I said in the beginning, it is important to note my strong feelings for the man and what he has meant to be and my love of cinema, but I don't think it would have changed a whole lot even if I barely knew him or his story. The real reason Life Itself works is because of its storytelling, its honesty and ability to shower love onto the life of a man without pandering. This is a marvelous testament to the powerful potential of the genre.
Whenever I see a new film, whether I love it or hate it, I always wonder what Ebert would think if he were still alive today. It makes me sad to know that he never got to see some of the films either currently released or the ones that will be soon. I can't help but wish I could read his review of Boyhood prior to my entering the cinema, for example, and as morbid as it sounds for a relatively young man like myself to even entertain these thoughts, I couldn't help but consider the fact that someday I, too, would pass away and leave behind people I love and the opportunity to experience wonderful films going forward. I could dwell on this, sure, but that would suck all of the fun out of living, seeing, experiencing, and loving. Instead I choose to make sure I don't take for granted what an incredible gift it is to wake up each day and cherish life itself.
If I can live half as good as Roger did, I will consider myself lucky.
- See all reviews