‘Life Itself’ is great, just as Ebert wanted

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Far more than just a tribute to the career of the world’s most famous and influential film critic, the often revelatory “Life Itself” is also a remarkably intimate portrait of a life well lived — right up to the very last moment.

Work on “Life Itself” (which borrows its title from Roger Ebert’s 2011 autobiography) was well underway when Ebert was hospitalized in December 2012 for treatment of a hairline hip fracture. At the time, it seemed a temporary setback after his long, grueling battle with thyroid cancer. Then came the news that his tumors had re-metastasized and he had very little time remaining.

Yet, despite the reluctance of his loving wife Chaz, who initially resisted his decision to stop fighting, and the misgivings of director Steve James (whose 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” Ebert had championed), Ebert insisted on continuing to work on the film until his final few days. He answered James’ emails until he could no longer force his mind and his fingers to make the effort.

Why would he do that? It might be argued it was one last chance to be in the spotlight, but it seems more likely that, for Ebert, working and living were close to synonymous. And that he had a deep love and respect for the medium he had made his life’s work. In the end, it was probably because he believed it would make “Life Itself” a better movie. There’s a moment in the hospital when James, after coming around, observes that “the ending makes for a better story.” And Ebert nods and smiles.

And it does make for a better story, though some might find certain details of Ebert’s final months uncomfortable. Just as some were no doubt put off by his decision to remain in the public eye, even after losing his lower jaw and his voice (Ebert’s omnipresent vocal reflections are provided by recordings, his voice-generating computer program and an actor) after radical surgery in 2006. But even without it, his life offered a pretty good story to tell.

That’s a good thing, because in most other ways, “Life Itself” conforms to the standard format of a biographical documentary. There are lots of archival photos, going back to Ebert’s childhood days as an altar boy in Urbana, along with reminiscences by colleagues, family and friends — including some highly colorful reminiscences from buddies he knew during his hard-drinking days, before committing to sobriety in 1979.

There are also, not surprisingly, numerous appreciations by filmmakers Ebert supported by over the years, including a particularly personal tribute from Martin Scorsese, who credits Ebert for encouraging his films pre-“Taxi Driver.” And for helping to pull him out of an addictive tailspin in the ’80s by organizing, with Gene Siskel, a Scorsese retrospective at the Toronto film festival. One of the most admirable traits “Life Itself” reveals about Ebert is his career-long commitment to — and enthusiasm for — discovering the work of filmmakers working outside the Hollywood mainstream, who might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Of course, it was the near 25 years Ebert appeared on national TV with the late Gene Siskel that made both of them famous, in addition to popularizing film criticism and turning it into a spectator sport. In addition to providing some fascinating behind-the-scenes details on their show and its history, James also addresses the long-standing question of whether Ebert and Siskel really did dislike each other. (Answer: It’s complicated.)

There was much more to Ebert career-wise, however. After early days as a cub reporter and civil-rights-championing college newspaper editor, he became the country’s youngest daily film critic in 1967 before winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. Yet he continued to identify himself with the old-school tradition of Chicago journalism and never left this newspaper, despite lavish offers. And let’s not forget his late-’60s screenwriting adventure with skin-flick auteur Russ Meyer.

There was also much more, it seems, to his appetite for living, especially for a man who, by rough estimate, must have spent 15,000 hours sitting in a darkened theater. This is a movie about a man who loved movies, who loved the work he chose and, ultimately, “Life Itself.”

‘LIFE ITSELF’ [s3r star=3.5/4]

Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary directed by Steve James. Running time: 116 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screening at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.

Bruce Ingram is a local freelance writer.

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