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Life Itself documentary review: he found it at the movies

Life Itself green light

A touching biography, and an accidental look at the tremendous upheaval that journalism has weathered in the past half century.
I’m “biast” (pro): Roger Ebert was a big influence in my work

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Roger Ebert is dead. Long live Roger Ebert. If there’s one thing that’s plain from documentarian Steve James’s warts-and-all tribute to perhaps the most famous film critic ever, it’s that his influence will continue to be felt for many decades to come, at least. Not only through the younger critics he inspired — including yours truly — but through the filmmakers he lobbied for and supported… such as Martin Scorsese, who here says that he would have given up (not just on movies but on life) if not for the recognition and public acclaim he got early in his career from Ebert and his partner in film criticism on TV, Gene Siskel. Life Itself, based in part on Ebert’s memoir, does not ignore the “radioactive” relationship that fired the two Chicago critics and their highly influential televised sparring over movies. The film couldn’t ignore it, in fact, because it appears to have been part and parcel of the dedication to principle and unabashed strong emotion that characterized Ebert’s approach to movies, which he defended mightily. Ultimately a quite touching biography, Life Itself is also an accidental look at the tremendous upheaval that journalism has weathered in the past half century: gone is the “unspeakably romantic” — those are Ebert’s words — hard-drinking boys’ club of the 60s and 70s, one that was almost exclusively white and male (as the parade of Ebert’s fellow critics talking about him here demonstrate). Ebert may have helped foster intelligent conversation about film on the Internet once he lost his speaking voice to cancer, but he was also overseeing the decline of the impact of critics’ voices as the money and power drifted away from the discipline and criticism stopped being able to compete with marketing and PR. We must lament not only Ebert himself but the likely fact that we really won’t see a critic with his authority again.


Amazon US VOD
iTunes US VOD
US/Canada release date: Jul 04 2014 (VOD same day)

MPAA: rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
  • David

    I was too young to really get into the Siskel and Ebert show although in the years since I find myself frequently watching their old joint reviews. It’s impossible to overstate the impact these two had and that Roger continued to have after Gene died. Not only critics but also bloggers and internet commentators find their opinions being compared, on at least some level, to Siskel and Ebert’s reviews. It actually came as a shock to me to learn that Roger Ebert and for that matter Gene Siskel had died because their “voices” were so vibrant and distinctive. Looking at Roger Ebert’s written reviews of the latest films were highlights of week up until he wrote the last one. All that remains is an unfilled hole.

  • Joe Bob

    Hey, life’s worth living, for Scorcese or any of us. Really enjoyed the film, and how great is it that the guy who put it together once had his own documentary championed by Ebert. For me, there was a bit too much footage of Roger in the hospital toward the end of his life. And I had no idea he and Siskel had such vitriol for each other. I used to go into bookstores and read those huge volumes of Ebert’s critiques. They were almost as entertaining as the movies he would be reviewing.

  • Bobby

    MAJ fills the void. “The Tree Of Life,” which Roger raves about in the documentary (comparing it to his own life), is one I somehow overlooked. And I probably would have never seen it had I not heard it from the “voice of the people”. And he is still speaking to us from beyond the grave. I found “Tree” today and am a half hour into it. Thank you, Roger, it is indeed pretty amazing.

  • Bluejay

    MAJ fills the void.

    Hope you still feel that way even if she doesn’t always share Ebert’s opinions (or yours). MAJ hated Tree of Life. :-)

    (She speaks for herself, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t consider herself the “voice of” anyone else.)

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    I would love to fill the void, but if I were doing so, I wouldn’t be struggling like I am.

  • johan


    Thanks for sharing.”The Tree Of Life,” which Roger raves about in the documentary (comparing it to his own life), is one I somehow overlooked.


    Thanks for share this