I’ve cried three times at the passing of a celebrity. Once when the sweet, soulful voice of Luther Vandross was silenced; and again when I heard Robin Williams would never tell another joke. But the quiet sadness I felt at those times is nothing compared to the night I heard Roger Ebert would no longer be going to the movies.
I remember the night. I was finishing up a school project in the library and in passing I heard somebody mention that Roger Ebert had died. Not wanting to believe it, and hoping it was another internet hoax, I ran a quick Google search. A quick study of the results and my heart dropped to the floor. As I was surrounded by my peers, I made my way to one of the gardens outside to sit alone. I was silent, pondering, and so quickly memories of his writings were flooding my head. I recalled the words that filled me with curiosity and wonder, others that challenged me to look a little bit deeper. But most of all I remembered the love that was so apparent in everything he wrote–the love of storytelling, the love of visual excitement, the unfaltering love for film.
Life Itself, the 2014 documentary on Ebert’s life does what it can to capture this love. I think no 2-hour film could ever do justice to his passion, but we see it all too briefly through his reviews, his relationships, his dedication, and most importantly his legacy. One of the most powerful scenes in the film has him passing on his love for film to his granddaughter. In the scene he is explaining what make makes Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentary series so powerful. I get the feeling that this scene was scripted and rehearsed, but the glimmer in Ebert’s eye cannot be manufactured. The magic of film filled him with joy right to the end.
But a man’s life is about more than his work. We know the stories that Ebert wrote about, and the stories he told. But what about the stories he made, the stories he lived? Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) manages to widen the scope of Ebert’s story beyond the movies, into his personal romances, despairs, friendships, and fears.
Part of the film illustrates Ebert’s battle with the bottle. We see how deeply alcoholism marred him, but because of this we feel more powerfully his victory over it. We cheer for him when he finds love. We root for him whenever he goes to battle. The man behind the thumbs becomes a real man in this film. It makes his writings come alive anew in my mind, having had a glimpse of the personal triumphs and struggles that shaped his views.
The film is filled with testimonies by world-renowned critics and filmmakers. Powerhouses such as Martin Scorsese, Richard Corliss, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris, Ramin Bahrani, and Werner Herzog share their experiences. To Roger Ebert, these people were not just the subjects of reviews and interviews, they were his close friends. You can actually see tears welling up in Scorsese’s eyes as he recounts some of the powerful connections he shared with his buddy. And Errol Morris emotionally, and emphatically states that he owes his entire career to Ebert. That’s quite a statement.
The movie wraps up with something that made me tear up myself. Werner Herzog (who incidentally I think is the best filmmaker in the world) with immense joy in his eyes, and a grin on his face like I’ve never seen before, says this:
I like to walk down Hollywood Boulevard because I know it’s his star coming. And I set my gaze straight; I don’t look down at the star, I know it’s coming, looking straight at the horizon into the future.
Watching the movie, and knowing what there is to know about Herzog, I knew these were words of deep love. Roger Ebert affected these people, these filmmakers, these geniuses in a profoundly deep way and they loved him for it. But he also affected me, affected us and we love him no less. We get to share the experience of that joy with people like Werner Herzog and Martin Scorsese, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Life Itself is now available to view on Netflix.