This documentary was completed after its subject died, though it was in the process of being made while he was still alive. But only just, as he had been suffering from the effects of terminal cancer when he was being filmed, a disease that had caused him to have his lower jaw removed and fractured part of his leg, leaving him unable to walk. Yet this was the physical man, the intellectual man was the most famous film critic who ever lived, he was Roger Ebert who published his writings in the Chicago Sun Times and was followed around the world for his opinions, whether the readers agreed with them or not. He considered film an artform because it enabled empathy with others, the act of watching a movie invites you to understand and make a connection with another person, he said...
Ebert's slow and painful demise was well documented already by the time this film came out, and that was down to his insistence on not keeping his illnesses secret, being very public about the breakdown of his body and his impending death through his talent for writing. Director Steve James had made the epic basketball documentary Hoop Dreams back in the nineteen-nineties, a work that became Ebert's favourite movie of that decade, so it was natural now he (and many others) practically owed a career to the early support of Ebert and his television show partner Gene Siskel that he should be invited to make what amounted to the document of the critic's final months, as well as a biopic of Ebert using much material from the archives.
The fact that Ebert's most recent footage was now from the archives by the point the film, named after his autobiography, was completed was part of the sad irony of a man who sprang to life when he was able to engage with his subject in discussions and opinion pieces that were preserved in books and perhaps more importantly online. Ebert saw the internet not as a threat to the printed page but as a complement, making Life Itself a rare film that championed the electronic medium as a positive force rather than a cesspool of stupidity, humiliation and bullying as it too often was depicted in the other media. From this you were well aware that the internet was whatever its users made it, and that optimism glowed throughout a story that was sanguine about the future.
Even if that future didn't have Ebert in it, as he said at the end he had lived a full, rich life and was satisfied with what he had accomplished; would that we all could say that. Which wasn't to say he didn't have his darker days, everyone does and for Ebert they would be his illnesses and his early alcoholism, the latter of which he beat, the former... well, you can't go on forever. This rendered the film as much an intimate portrait of coping with a terminal condition as it was a celebration of cinema, with almost half the footage of the central figure, if not more, showing his ruined body and face which was painful to watch at first, and if you did not exactly get used to it, once you discerned the personality of the individual behind that with his reliance on the "thumbs up" signal you were a little more comfortable knowing he was compos mentis.
Although much of Life Itself was rather American-centric, understandable when so much of Ebert's cultural impact was in that country, that didn't mean non-Americans wouldn't appreciate him, and a lot of that was down to his internet presence which continues to this day as most of his reviews were published on his website. His relationship of critical oneupmanship with Siskel would have made a fascinating movie in itself, with many revealing clips showing their love/hate respect for one another, but this was a love story first and foremost. Ebert loved film for the way he could set forth his philosophy as well as entertain with his opinions, but the other love affair was with his wife Chaz who you get the impression rescued him from a lonely life should they never have met. She is the other major presence in the documentary, a true rock who encouraged and stood by her husband as he deteriorated, and it's this more than the cinematic achievements - which included writing Russ Meyer movies and convincing Martin Scorsese he had worth - that remains the most touching element. Music by Joshua Abrams.