A countless number of aspiring couch critics have spoken of the role that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert played in nurturing their desire for film criticism. The various incarnations of their groundbreaking and one-of-a-kind movie review program entertained, broadened, and inspired generations of film fans. Siskel and Ebert became synonymous with film criticism and while they weren’t the only talented and knowledgeable movie critics during their day, they were instrumental in bringing it to the mainstream and creating a wider appreciation for it as a whole.
I was one of those kids they influenced. It was during the early 1980s that I was first exposed to their weekly television show. I watched them any opportunity I had and I made them part of my weekend. To say I was obsessed would be an understatement and almost instantly I wanted to be a movie critic. Eventually I began to favor Gene Siskel and the way he talked about movies. But over time my appreciation for Roger Ebert and his unmatched knowledge and passion for movies grew tremendously. While we were sometimes at odds concerning things outside the world of cinema, I considered him a wealth of information and his reviews were like fascinating lessons that increased my understanding of movies and of the people of make them. That’s one reason his passing last year had such an effect on so many people.
“Hoop Dreams” director Steve James brings the life of Roger Ebert to the big screen in “Life Itself”, a documentary based on Ebert’s memoirs. It’s a unique but heartfelt mixture of biographical information and poignant emotions. James began his documentary before Ebert’s death and when the beloved film critic passed away James pledged to the family that he would finish his joint venture with Roger.
“Life Itself” follows Ebert during what turned out to be his final months. We spend a lot of time with him in rehabilitation centers following his debilitating battles with cancer and a fractured hip. Some of what he is going through is sobering and uncomfortable but, as he conveyed to Steve James, to omit the reality would be to do a disservice. His wife Chaz serves as his rock and it is impossible not to be moved by her love and dedication to her husband. I also appreciated the truth that she shares in so many of the interview bits we get.
Throughout the film we get many breaks that look into Ebert’s past. We learn a little about his family and his early forays into the newspaper business. And of course we see his jump into film criticism for the Chicago Sun-Times and eventually alongside his local rival Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune. The film has a genuine sense of honesty which shows itself in its dealings with Ebert’s past struggles with alcohol and his off-putting arrogance. But it also reveals deep passions that he possessed and how is life was forever altered for the better when he met Chaz. Personally I was drawn to his relationship with Siskel which was far more competitive and combative in its early stages that I realized. Watching the evolution of their relationship shined a new light on two men who I watched so religiously for so many years.
“Life Itself” is a solid documentary that will certainly appeal to anyone who appreciated Roger Ebert’s work and his contributions to motion pictures. I do think Steve James loses his rhythm midway through the film and his jumps to different events in Roger’s past are jarring due to a lack continuity. But the last act gets back on track and it leaves you with a lump in your throat and an even greater appreciation for a man who meant so much to movies and the art of film criticism. As the final credits scrolled across the screen I reclined in my chair and shook my head. I just can’t believe both Roger and Gene are gone.
I haven’t seen the documentary so I can’t add any insight, but I’m struck by the lack of comments for this beautifully written piece?
You really deserve better!
Wow. Thank you so much. You’re too kind. The comments have taken a nose dive over the last few weeks. It did have me wondering. Your words are very encouraging.
It really is a well-done documentary and I found it personally satisfying due to my many years reading his material. It could’ve been structured a little better, but it’s still very strong.
I’ve actually only seen the Siskel & Ebert show on youtube but never on TV. That said, Mr. Ebert’s legacy as a critic is tremendous. I really need to see this one, and your review definitely gives me the push to get to this soon.
P.S. Totally agree w/ Paul, your writing IS awesome Keith!
Thanks so much Ruth. You’re simply the best and always a great encouragement.
I watched Siskel and Ebert on our local education television station. They came on Saturday mornings and as a young fellow I would be glued to the screen. They truly did help form me into the movie fan that I am. I think that’s why this doc really appealed to me.
That’s a profound closing statement, Keith. I’m a young “couch critic” to be sure. I one day hope to be getting paid to discuss films, I love it quite a bit. I’d be lying if I said the hook isn’t in deep. 🙂 I can’t say the death of Gene Siskel impacted me, since it was before my time, but there’s no denying Ebert’s passing was enormous even on me being relatively new to the concept of film criticism. Basically what i’m saying is there’s no way I can miss this docu! 🙂
Loved what you said and judging by that you definitely need to see this one. I was always a ‘Siskel guy’ and the last shows he did were pretty difficult. You could tell he was sick and doing the show was tough. But he labored through it because he just loved movies. When he passed I was pretty upset.
Roger kept going and I enjoyed reading his material especially his ‘great movies’ reviews. Lo and behold he ended up facing terrible health issues and just like Gene he fought on. And now they’re both gone but their contributions to movies and film criticism are eternal. This is a fellow couch critic who misses them dearly.
What a well written review, Keith. I have yet to see this, but I’m hoping to see it in the new few days. I, too, was a big fan of their show back in the day, although I’m probably more of the generation of Ebert and Roeper just because of my age. Great tribute post, Keith. Looking forward to watching this soon!
Thanks so much. It’s a very good documentary and I think you’ll really appreciate it. It’s not perfect but for fans it does the critic service.
I think it was definitely made for the fans as well, which I like. I thought it was an interesting, even wise, choice to release it online. That’s where Ebert’s life really centered for the last several years of his life. TBH, part of me has hoped for a biopic on his life to hit the big screen at some point, but I’m guessing that won’t happen for a while, if ever.
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