Blu-ray Review: Life Itself

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Steve James (Hoop Dreams) directed the documentary Life Itself, an adaptation of the late film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name. Ebert was involved in the production, bravely allowing the disfiguring results of his surgical procedures to be photographed up close by James’ unflinching camera. Ebert’s work as one of the most influential film journalists of all time is the focus throughout, but his long, brutal battle with cancer needs to be mentioned up front. Continuing to work at a steady pace right up to his death on April 4, 2013, Ebert faced staggering adversity as the cancer claimed his body bit by bit. His spirit of positivity and perseverance is astoundingly inspirational, making Life Itself is an absolute must-see. Yes, witnessing Ebert silently, painfully endure physical therapy is not easy. But imagine how he felt. James’ beautifully crafted film leaves an indelible impression of Roger Ebert as a true hero.

As someone who has attempted (right here on TMR, for instance) to write thoughtful reviews of films, Life Itself is a humbling experience. I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s writing for as long as I can remember and, like millions of others around the world, considered his passing a profound loss for all who love movies. James, interviewing a variety of filmmakers as well as Ebert’s friend and associates, makes a case for Roger Ebert—along with his late onscreen partner, Gene Siskel—as the most influential of all film critics. Siskel and Ebert’s Sneak Previews and At the Movies TV series are covered, naturally, at length, with plenty of examples of their famously cantankerous onscreen rapport. Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen participates here, paying tribute not only to her late husband (who died in 1999 of cancer) but also Ebert. Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, is a regularly featured, both at her husband’s side and in interviews filmed after his passing.

We hear from Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and documentarian Errol Morris (who credits Siskel and Ebert’s support of his film Gates of Heaven with ensuring the existence of his career). Strangely, we hear absolutely nothing of Richard Roeper, the film critic who stepped in to fill Siskel’s shoes on At the Movies. He’s not even mentioned. But we do learn a great deal about Ebert’s personal life, including his struggle with alcoholism during his early adult years. The story is told mostly in linear fashion, though James periodically reminds us where Ebert was during his final years. The recent footage doesn’t feel like an intrusion in the narrative. It serves as an affirmation of the vital importance of his wife Chaz and their family during that challenging period. Special note must be made of Joshua Abrams’ superb original score. “Roger’s Theme,” a loping, mournful jazz tune, is so memorable I initially assumed it had to be an existing piece of music. It’s a haunting, beautiful theme for a haunting and beautiful documentary.

Magnolia Pictures’ Blu-ray includes some 22 minutes of deleted scenes. There’s also the complete “Sundance Tribute” segment seen in excerpts during the main film. Director Steve James is featured in a ten minute interview. Additionally, there is a brief promo featurette called “AXS TV: A Look at Life Itself.”

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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