Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself earns big thumbs-up

Esteemed documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) scores again with Life Itself, a winning and comprehensive valentine to film critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) – and to movies in general.

Taking its title from Ebert’s 2011 memoir, the film features interviews with fellow critics (including Richard Corliss and A.O. Scott), filmmakers (including Werner Herzog), executive producer Martin Scorsese, and Winston-Salem’s Ramin Bahrani), friends and colleagues (including Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen) – and, of course, Ebert and his wife Chaz. The film was begun while Ebert was in the final stages of his long, Herculean battle with cancer.

All areas of Ebert’s life and career are conveyed in an occasionally leisurely but never boring fashion. It’s all here: Ebert’s days as a college newspaper editor, as film critic with the Chicago Sun-Times, as friend and collaborator with filmmaker Russ Meyer (which yielded the unforgettable Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) and, of course, his TV partnership with fellow Chicago critic Siskel.

The Siskel/Ebert moments, including their awkward early days in front of a camera and their off-camera bickering, is a highlight throughout. The popularity they gained – and the power they wielded – helped put film criticism in the mainstream (and inspired writers like this one).

There are plenty of laughs and plenty of film clips (some of which earned this film an R rating thanks to language), but there are legitimately moving moments throughout, such as Siskel’s early death in 1999 at only 53, and of course Ebert’s own health woes, which the film does not shy away from.

Life Itself ends, inevitably, with Ebert’s death, yet it’s also a celebration of the legacy of a man who lived life to the fullest and truly loved and championed movies and moviemakers. It’s a hero’s story.

Life Itself is scheduled to open Friday