Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: ‘Life Itself’ review

The outpouring of emotion following the death of beloved American film critic Roger Ebert last year remains unparalleled in the modern day; few cultural commentators, on either side of the Atlantic, could lay claim to such a fervent and loyal fanbase. Charged with the task of commemorating an extraordinary career – and, indeed, Ebert’s life itself – was director Steve James, just one of many filmmakers Roger had championed over the decades (his 1994 debut, Hoop Dreams, was lauded for weeks). James undoubtedly achieves that celebratory tone, but those looking for more than just an augmented visualisation of Ebert’s biography may be left wavering on whether it’s a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”.

Life Itself recounts Ebert’s stratospheric rise to the top of his profession, utilising photographs, archive footage, interviews and extracts from his own bestselling memoir (of the same name) to flesh out his colourful existence. Born in Urbana, Illinois, to extremely supportive parents, Ebert flew through college and university before being hired as a roving reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times (not to be confused with their fierce rival, the Chicago Tribune). Here, he took up the mantle of the paper’s film critic, covering not only mainstream releases but also experimental and arthouse offerings from all around the world. Crucial to Ebert’s longevity was his on and off-screen tribulations with Tribune critic and At the Movies co-host Gene Siskel, with whom he shared a tumultuous, often frayed relationship.

Ebert sadly died during the shooting of James’ doc after signing a non-resuscitation order whilst in hospital, and Life Itself is touchingly framed by moments spent with the frail movie-lover and Chaz, his wife of eleven years. The film’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place, with the director also keen to acknowledge Ebert’s spiralling alcoholism in his early years at the Sun-Times. Where it fails, however, is in shedding any new light on the critic’s profession and/or exploring just how Ebert radically altered the established rules of engagement. His contemporaries, such as The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael (“Fuck Pauline Kael!”, remarks one of Roger’s old drinking buddies) and the interviewed Richard Corliss (Film Comment, Time), are generally portrayed as high-minded naysayers, their valid argument over the reductive effect “thumbs up/thumbs down” had on arts criticism as a whole (a work is either “good” or “bad”) brushed off as sour grapes.

It’s in the depiction of Ebert’s love/hate relationship with the antagonising Siskel, however, that Life Itself really engages the viewer. Siskel, cut very much from the same cloth as the more serious, professional critics like Corliss and Kael, clashed on multiple occasions with his partner’s relaxed, populist approach. And yet they were also tremendous friends, as quick to joke as they were to snipe. Though Ebert unquestionably had the intellect and wit to go toe-to-toe with anyone, he was a cinephile more interested in the emotional response cinema evoked in everyday people rather than one subscribed to the untouchable canon (his infamous dismissal of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was just one of many reviews that went against the grain). It’s a shame, then, that James doesn’t quite have the conviction to paint a more inventive, expressionist portrait of a life well-lived, rather than a doe-eyed, if sincere tribute aimed largely at the converted.

For more info about Steve James’ Life Itself, visit

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.

Daniel Green