When you’re making a movie about a famous personality, particularly someone who has died, it’s a huge responsibility. There are always high expectations surrounding these types of films. On the one hand, filmmakers are expected to pay respect to the celebrity and present their life in an accurate manner that pleases family/friends. At the same time, however, they are also expected to satisfy fans who have been following the celebrity throughout life. With “Life Itself”, director Steve James has crafted one of those special documentaries that is guaranteed to please both audiences.
The most fascinating aspect of this documentary is the generous side it reveals of Roger Ebert’s personality. Although he was a Pulitzer Prize Winner, fame never got in the way of Ebert’s compassion for others. Instead, he used his status as a film critic to change the lives of the people he looked up to and admired. Take, for example, movie directors. Not only did Ebert review movies, but he also went out of his way to recognize first-time movie directors whom he believed were talented. Ava DuVernay, for instance, is one of the directors whose career took flight thanks to Roger Ebert. When her first film came out, “I Will Follow”, Ebert’s support lifted the then first-time director’s career to another level. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, DuVernay admits that she wouldn’t be where she is without the encouragement she received from the film critic.
As compassionate and caring as he was, though, Roger Ebert was not a man without flaws. What’s most impressive about “Life Itself” as a documentary is that it doesn’t shy away from addressing the controversial side to Ebert. Most documentaries about famous figures glamorize them, yet are too afraid to shine light on their mistakes. This is where “Life Itself” stands out from other documentaries about celebrities. Despite his compassion for others, Ebert struggled throughout life with an addiction to alcohol. This addiction to drugs almost ended up ruining his life early on in his career. It’s rare to come across a documentary that isn’t afraid to shine light on a celebrity’s failures as well as their triumphs in life.
However, when a movie tackles subjects as grim as drug addiction, it’s bound to not be for everyone. Although “Life Itself” is a must-see for movie-lovers, it’s not the type of film that I would recommend to everybody. Because it shows in great detail the trauma that people go through when they have Cancer, this is not a film for the faint of heart. The last hour of the documentary is particularly hard to watch, due to it’s disturbing depiction of Roger Ebert’s fight against Cancer. Viewers that are sensitive towards these kinds of subjects may not be able to sit through the entire running time of “Life Itself”.
In the end, though, if you are able to digest a subject as harsh as Cancer “Life Itself” is well worth a watch. Despite being a little longer than necessary at 2 hours, and dragging in certain sections, this is one of those special films which reminded me why I watch movies in the first place. Not just to be entertained, but also to learn a life-changing lesson about life. “Life Itself” inspired, educated and enlightened me about a world-famous icon whose legacy will never be forgotten.
As a final note, one can’t help but wonder what Roger Ebert would have thought of this film. Since he unfortunately passed away two years ago, he never got a chance to see the final product. Nevertheless, I have a strong feeling that he would have appreciated this tribute to his life. If he were alive today, he would have given this documentary two thumbs up with a beaming smile on his face.