Steve James, the director of the documentaries as “The Interrupters” and “Hoop Dreams,” films boosted by Ebert, directed “Life Itself.” James gave it both the distance of a documentary, marginally objective, and the intimacy of a documentary, subjective by its very definition.
A friend who ran a Linotype placed the boy’s by-line on a piece of paper, and Ebert was hooked into journalism. He had spent every waking moment at Champagne-Urbana as editor of the school paper, the Daily Illini. He kind of fell into film criticism as a young journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times when the other critic left, back when just anyone was assigned to see a movie and write about it. Ebert , at the time, the youngest film critic in America, took the job seriously from that moment until the day he died. He won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, a first.
“Life Itself” covers those early years of carousing and of alcoholism and then sobriety. It covers Ebert’s writing the déclassé “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” for Russ Meyer.” And it covers his marriage at 50 to Chaz, a remarkable women he met at AA. Together, the two saw him through his cancer and the last days of his career as a blogger about film. Ebert found his new voice in blogs and through electronics, a voice that he thought he’d lost with his jaw and his ability to eat and drink. But his mind and his opinions were still plugged in.
Much of “Life Itself” appeals to film buffs who like a link to the inside. Steve James interviews Martin Scorsese, who credits Ebert with bringing him out of a slough of despond. He interviews a PBS exec on how long it took snooty New York and L.A. to even run Chicago-based “Sneak Previews.” James has critics like A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Roger Corliss talking about Ebert’s “democratizing of cinema.” James shows Ebert in the hospital, having his throat suctioned — not pretty and very real — and he shows him at Cannes, hob-nobbing with the stars of the screen. James weaves in archival film of Gene Siskal and Roger Ebert on “Sneak Previews” and behind those scenes with the two of them barely speaking or scrapping like angry birds. James also interviews Siskal’s widow Marlene on the raucous relationship between the two men and on their last illnesses. “Life Itself” is the film version of Ebert’s memoir, and it’s an honorable look at a memorable, influential life.