Oftentimes in documentaries about a celebrity, there’s an interview with a “childhood friend” or some similarly unknown, unverifiable expert on not only the subject’s backstory but also apparently, somehow his or her later years. You can see one of those sorts of talking heads in the new 30 for 30 doc The Price of Gold offering commentary on Tonya Harding. I’m always curious about the true nature and history of these friendships, as the films rarely stop to tell us. In general, in fact, interviewees in docs are too often reduced to a simple caption with their name and briefest of relevance.
That is not the case with Life Itself, the biographical doc about Roger Ebert directed by Steve James and executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Steve Zaillian. There are guys in this film whose exact identity I missed or can’t recall but who are from Ebert’s past and you really know it. There are a few old photos of them together, for one thing, but also the way they share stories and speak in detail and bare uninhibited commentary regarding the famous film critic, these were his buddies. Not just some guys who sorta knew him around the paper or as fellow regulars at the bar.
These are friends enough to state sincerely but with a laugh, “Yeah, he’s a nice guy, but he’s not that nice.” And to speak of Ebert’s terrible taste in women during his early days employed at the Chicago Sun-Times, how when he wasn’t writing or seeing movies he was at the bar with one of these “gold diggers.” This is how Life Itself leads into an acknowledgment of Ebert’s alcoholism, by being lovingly and brutally honest about who he was before the AA meetings began 35 years ago. The film is a portrait with edges both soft and rough, an endearing tribute but not without recognition that this beloved and prize-winning man of letters was just a man through and true.
You can see directly how much he liked transparency in the doc, which features scenes that James shot in Ebert’s final months, most of them in the hospital, at a time when none of them knew the film would wind up a posthumous work for its subject. Never ashamed of how he looked, Ebert hadn’t shied away from cameras even when his jaw was damaged by cancer and surgery — “not a lovely sight,” he wrote of himself in 2010. In the film he goes further, allowing us to watch as a nurse suction-cleans his open throat and feeding tube. Not all is brave and candid views of what the disease looks like, though. Early on he tells James to shoot himself in the mirror, giving us one of the most fundamental forms of documentary reflexivity.
Without being too much of a first-person narrative, there is enough of the director in the film to make it a personal project. There’s a bit of subjective voiceover and a device used to show his inquiring correspondence with Ebert in preparation of and during the shooting of the doc. More often we hear the words of the subject, readings from his memoir, also called Life Itself, which provided the basis for the film. This is, as we hear from the subject, not just James’s film; it’s a collaborative effort. Standing in for Ebert’s voice is impressionist Stephen Stanton, who mostly does an amazing job mimicking the critic, although he also sometimes sounds like Ron Howard.
It’s also partly Scorsese’s film, as a producer, and yet it’s never weird that he also appears as one of the talking heads, as a friend and someone who benefitted from Ebert’s reviews, particularly in the beginning. On-screen he exhibits emotions we don’t tend to witness from him — usually we just see the passion and excitement for cinema — as he tells of a low point in his life following his divorce from Isabella Rossellini and the box office disappointment of The King of Comedy, how he was ready to give it all up (I forget if suicide, which is a recurring word in the film, was mentioned here), and then Ebert and Gene Siskel picked the filmmaker back up with an encouraging special tribute.
Then, soon after, the pair of critics, in print and on their television show, delivered scathing pans of The Color of Money, and wincingly Scorsese admits to accepting the candor. That relationship between critic and artist, mutually admiring yet also unbiased is the sort of constructive association that documentarian and subject should have, and James and Ebert certainly do with Life Itself. Sometimes the man is treated like a saint or a hero, a wonderful husband and step-grandfather, someone who proved over and over to many people that the world and the movies were better because he had been alive. Other times he’s being called an asshole, a big baby, a braggadocio, and full of himself.
Life Itself is a moving film, as was to be expected, but it’s also a film that really moves along, in spite of its intercutting of the present moment with the stories of Ebert’s past, which also aren’t so much in chronological order as loosely chaptered to cover the different important parts of his life rather than phases. But a couple of elements are more than a dot on a timeline or even a branch of organizational priority. The Siskel & Ebert stuff, which will be the most entertaining for many viewers who grew up with their show, couldn’t simply be a section of the film, nor could anything pertaining to his wife, Chaz. Each has its place in the forward biographical framework but also is a constant presence. Working again with editor David E. Simpson (Head Games), James continues to show that he can really arrange life stories with great clarity and fluidity and with very little filler included just because its a good sound bite. Few directors comprehend their subjects so well let alone make the viewer comprehend them on the same level.
There are not a lot of straight classic biographical documentaries. Crumb. Man on Wire. The Times of Harvey Milk. A Brief History of Time. Perhaps The Kid Stays in the Picture and Senna, too. It’s a bit early to add Life Itself to the list, but for now I can sincerely call it a perfect entry into the genre. It’s fair and revealing and funny and heartbreaking and about a lot of things peripherally in addition to just the telling of a life story. It’s a film about criticism, ego, partnership, friendship, true love, inspiration, human weakness, “earthly appeals” and of course confronting death.
One thing I’ve constantly cited and actually use as a primary rule of thumb is Ebert’s mantra that it’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it that counts. Interestingly, when he lost his voice, Chaz tells us that she told her husband that for his fans “it’s what you have to say, not how you say it.” I think for him it was both. Even without speech, it was in the way he stated things in his writing, so clearly and intelligently, as much as if not more than the opinions he spouted. Life Itself is similarly exceptional for both what and how it’s about. This is documentary itself.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2014.