“Life Itself” Recharges Viewers with Passion, Intelligence and Nostalgia

Some weeks really are just harder than others. Frustrations at work, miscommunication with loved ones, respected celebrity’s suicides, bills and barking dogs next door. I hit a low at the end of last week and then bounced back quickly after watching the documentary about the acclaimed Chicago film critic, Roger Ebert, entitled Life Itself.

Growing up in Chicago, I was keenly aware of the local journalists and watched every variant of the show that Ebert and his film review partner and nemesis, Gene Siskel, worked on together. It was a Friday night ritual. It was on early in the evening and I would listen to their perspectives and take notes, and that would decide my plans for the weekend, the next week, and sometimes even the entire month. Their reviews opened me up to the idea that film is an art form. I learned about Wener Herzog, The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Gerard Depardieu and numerous other films and filmmakers who may have otherwise never entered my world. In short, I had a vested interest in seeing this movie.

siskel and ebert
Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert

Even those who don’t have emotional or territorial ties to Roger Ebert before seeing the film will surely be moved by his compelling life story, and his strength of will to work and survive after an extreme illness. The film consists of interviews of Ebert’s family, colleagues, and filmmakers intertwined with original footage of Ebert, photos from throughout his life and clips from some of the programs that he made over the years. Lovingly edited and narrated by renowned director of Hoop Dreams, Steve James, it is in its best moments masterful.

Ebert’s is the story of an American dream come true. He came from a simple family in Urbana, Illinois. He began writing at a young age and became the editor of the Daily Illini at The University of Illinois while attending there. He got a job part-time at the Chicago Sun-Times and when the resident film critic retired, he became the youngest film critic working for a national paper in the country. What makes his story exceptional, is that this man from the midwest and his partner Gene Siskel became the preeminent experts on cinema for the better part of two decades. New York and Los Angeles had their fair share of critics but none that rose to the level of commercial success or pop culture phenomenon as the Chicago duo.

By 2005 Roger Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and he spent the remainder of his life fighting the disease which gradually took over his body. Up until his death, he remained a prolific blogger, critic, and Twitter user. His following on social media was among the biggest in the early days of its inception.

It’s simply lovely to hear Ebert’s stories of the romance of early journalism, of his winning the Pulitzer Prize, attending the Cannes Film Festival and meeting and falling in love with his wife Chaz. The footage of the famously epic battles between Roger and Gene are hilarious, the interviews with Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog are touching and the views of the palatial movie houses of old are nostalgia at its best. This film is a must-see for fans of American pop culture, lovers of Chicago and movie fans of every age.




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