Life Itself - DVD Review

'James is clearly a massive fan of Ebert, but his film never becomes cloying or gratuitous in its presentation of his subject'.

For a sizeable portion of its running time, watching Life Itself is a bit like being guided through a party attended exclusively by people who knew film critic and writer Roger Ebert. Director Steve James leads you around to hear what the various talking heads have to say about their friend, relative or colleague Roger, at times relating Ebert's story to you in chronological order, at others linking different moments of his life through thematic or emotional ties. It's a varyingly casual style which suits James' film, largely because it also suits the varyingly casual modus operandi of his subject.

That's not to say that James downplays the significance of Ebert's work as a writer, broadcaster and cultural voice. Quite the opposite, Life Itself is consistently open and candid about Ebert's power and influence, most prominently in the world of film. James is clearly a massive fan of Ebert, but his film never becomes cloying or gratuitous in its presentation of his subject. The director frankly covers the less glamorous areas of Ebert's life, including his struggles with alcoholism and womanising as a young man, seemingly both fuelled by his desire to fit in early on in his career. James also covers at length Ebert's often antagonistic relationship with fellow critic and long-time broadcasting partner Gene Siskel in perhaps his film's most frank and awkward sequences, many of which consist almost entirely of seemingly unedited outtakes and backstage footage of the pair's invariably petty squabbles.

Juxtaposed with the celebratory treatment of Ebert's career is a starkly intimate view of what would end up as the final weeks of his life. Seeing a man who has built his life around eloquent communication stripped of his voice and debilitated to the point of being unable to eat or drink for himself is undeniably uncomfortable viewing at times, with Ebert clearly at times physically a husk of his former self. But the way in which he remains overwhelmingly positive, refusing to lose his sense of humour and utilising technology – a computer voice program for everyday communication, and a blog to continue his career as a critic and social commentator – is genuinely uplifting.

James' film ultimately succeeds in striking the right balance between analysis of Ebert as professional writer, document of him as a cancer patient, and exploration of him as an individual. To focus too much or too little on one area could potentially have given Life Itself an uncomfortable edge of hero worship, clinical deconstruction or mawkish eulogy. Instead, thanks to James' steady hand and Ebert's willingness to allow the director to make the film he himself would want to see, Life Itself is a fitting and well-crafted chronicle of one of the important voices of 20th Century culture.

Life Itself is released on UK DVD on Monday 23rd February.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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