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Life Itself

9/10

Stars: Roger Ebert

With: Chaz Ebert, Raven Ebert, Ava DuVernay, Ramin Bahrani, Richard Corliss, Nancy de los Santos, Bruce Elliot, Thea Flaum, Josh Golden, Werner Herzog, Marlene Iglitzen, Donna LaPietra, Rick Kogan, John McHugh, Errol Morris, Howie Movshovitz, Gregory Nava, William Nack. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Martin Scorsese, A.O. Scott, Roger Simon.

Director: Steve James

Roger Ebert, who died of cancer in 2013, was probably the finest and best-known film critic in the United States, beginning his extraordinary career writing about movies in 1996 in the Sunday magazine of the Chicago Sun-Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, becoming the first film critic to do so and, with Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, became famous throughout the United States feuding as they reviewed films on television. After Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert carried on on the small screen with Richard Roeper.

Then, after cancer cruelly robbed him of the ability to speak, he carried on reviewing as an Internet blogger.

Nowadays, thanks to instant free or really inexpensive Internet, many aspirant critics simply begin as bloggers. It’s even possible that Ebert might well have approved of such stress-free access to film reviewing, having once stated “People can make up their own minds about movies”.

Which is how it should be. Critics should be guides to taste and not dictators of it.

Documentary filmmaker Steve James fascinatingly tells Ebert’s life and handsomely returns the favour Ebert did him when in 1994 he went out to bat for Jones’ first feature Hoop Dreams. Movie buffs are entertainingly catered for with excerpts from Bonnie and Clyde, Cries and Whispers and other interesting movies, along with discussion of Ebert co-scripting with Russ Meyer the less than auteur-friendly masterpiece Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

We see Ebert from his early life, to his time as a college newspaperman and becoming a professional journalist, his last drink in 1979 and after that as a recovering alcoholic, television fame, marriage at 50 and finally fighting the illness that finally overcame him and becoming a major force on the internet.

Ebert’s politicized involvement with the annual Congress of World Affairs and germane comments and some (unintentional) comic relief comes from Martin Scorsese talking to camera (with a poster for Cat People in the background, Werner Herzog (who describes Ebert as “the soldier of the cinema") and a shaggy-looking Jonathan Rosenbaum add interesting depth to a notable documentary.

If I may plagiarise ‘Ebert’, Jones' film version of his memoir earns a definitive ‘thumbs up’!

Alan Frank

USA 2014. UK Distributor: Dogwoof. Colour.
120 minutes. not widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 2, Violence/Horror 2, Drugs 2, Swearing 2.

Review date: 16 Nov 2014