The documentary "Life Itself," directed by Steve James of "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters" and based on the late Roger Ebert's 2011 memoir, could have settled for well-meaning hagiography or a feature-length pitch for sainthood. Many of Ebert's far-flung fans and admirers, along with the thousands of Chicagoans who called him friend even if they didn't know him, may have preferred it that way.
It's a relief to report "Life Itself" is better than that. It's a clear-eyed portrait of a complicated, Falstaffian figure. The film is a little soft, and tactful to a fault. Yet it's a work of taste and generosity, in keeping with its subject, and James ensures that it avoids the hometown-hero "attaboy!" attitude some feared might come of such a project, especially so soon after the 70-year-old film critic's death in April.
The movie made its world premiere Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival. Director James, Ebert's widow, Chaz Ebert, and many others connected to "Life Itself" are making the media rounds there this week. The film, presented under the CNN Films banner, will likely be broadcast later this year on CNN. Meantime, the 1,500 or so folks who contributed more than $150,000 to the film's Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign will be getting a look at "Life Itself" via streaming link, simultaneous with the movie's first Sundance screening.
All that's behind, and around, the film itself, which was made by people who have strong personal reasons for revering their subject. (Here's my disclosure: I had the good fortune of filling in for Roger, opposite his "At the Movies" co-host Richard Roeper, during much of his long illness. Later, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott and I hosted the final season of the Disney-produced show.)
"Life Itself" executive producer Martin Scorsese is an old pal of Ebert's; as a young Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Ebert championed Scorsese's 1967 feature "I Call First," later retitled "Who's That Knocking at My Door." On camera, Scorsese recalls carrying a tattered copy of the Ebert review in his wallet as he traveled through Europe, contemplating his cinematic future. He mentions also the time Ebert and Siskel hosted a Toronto International Film Festival tribute to Scorsese, which came at a career low ebb for the director in the '80s and helped, he says, give him the confidence to get back on track.
James himself benefited greatly from Ebert's rallying support on "Hoop Dreams," among other Kartemquin Films milestones. Early on in "Life Itself," narrator James speaks in voice-over just after revealing himself, at Ebert's command, in the mirror, holding a video camera. "Although Roger had supported my films over the years," James says, "this film was the first chance to really get to know him."
The filmmaker was granted considerable access to Ebert's last grueling months in late 2012 and 2013, spent in large part at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Years earlier, in 2006, Ebert lost the ability to speak along with much of his lower jaw, as thyroid cancer waged war on America's most trusted pundit (according to one poll). Calmly, James shows us some of what the Eberts endured, in the way of feeding tubes and treadmill rehab following a hip fracture, as Chaz and company helped keep Roger alive another month, another week, another day.
"Life Itself" has the sense not to shield us from the realities of what Ebert went through. There are testy moments caught between Roger and Chaz, in one case over the painful navigation of a few critical steps from the car to the garage stairs in the Eberts' Lincoln Park town house.
Rehab footage notwithstanding, "Life Itself" mostly follows the lead and the contours of Ebert's autobiography, portions of which are read in voice-over by an uncannily Ebert-like Stephen Stanton. There's considerable and rosy reminiscence about Ebert's childhood, though James barely touches on the subject of Ebert's alcoholic, rage-fueled mother. A good deal of "Life Itself" concerns Ebert's own drinking, leading up to his Waterloo in 1979, when he stopped altogether. (On camera, Chaz says that she and Roger met at an AA meeting, although Ebert's own autobiography places their first encounter at Riccardo's, with advice columnist Ann Landers making the introduction.)
During the drinking years, says friend and saloonkeeper Bruce Elliot, Roger's social life pre-Chaz included ladies for hire, "gold diggers, opportunists or psychos. … He had the worst taste in women of any man I've ever known." Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan (his Tribune affiliation goes unidentified; the film's Sun-Times bias is quite plain) notes that part of Ebert's success among the local journalism legends was simple: "He could tell a good story in a saloon."
The glimpses of Ebert in those years matches the picture of the precocious, inordinately talented college journalist who edited the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois in the early '60s and wrote, beautifully, of JFK's assassination and the civil rights-era carnage in the South. Ebert described himself at that age as "tactless, egotistical, merciless and a showboat." All that helped enormously on TV years later. Viewers, and Ebert's ever-expanding pool of readers, came to know the passionate film advocate behind the stylized version of himself.
Many of the myths surrounding Ebert and Siskel's chemistry and multimillion-dollar success rely on the same received wisdom: They fought, but they loved each other. "Life Itself" hears from plenty of folks, including the widows of both men, confirming that story to varying degrees. But James drills down, astutely, to remind us just how much jealousy and animosity fueled their partnership. Richard Corliss of Time magazine says that the appeal of the show, up until Siskel's death in 1999, could be described in a sentence. It was, he says, "a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater."
"Life Itself" is hampered by Joshua Abrams' tonally indecisive musical score, reliant on bland jazz and blues licks going nowhere in particular. (Musical scoring has proven to be a nagging Kartemquin bugaboo.) Although he probably felt he needed to do it this way, I'm not sure James' decision to insert himself in his own movie, however modestly, was the right one.
I wish the film made more room for aesthetic debate. Valuably, Chicago-based critic Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks to what he sees as the TV show's marginalization of independent and foreign work, while Ebert pal and "El Norte" director Gregory Nava counters with a fervent defense of Ebert's indie advocacy. Later, Nava asks: Why can't more critics be like Ebert and get to know directors as friends? Time's Corliss answers that sticky, conflict-laden question one way; Ebert answered it another.
Wherever one stands on these issues, this is a big-hearted, absorbing documentary about a writer who kept on writing until very near the end. Anyone who cared about Roger Ebert will find it necessary viewing.
"Life Itself" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:55
Plays: 5 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.