One of America's greatest film critics received a welcome honor this past weekend. “Life Itself,” the documentary chronicling the career of Roger Ebert, opened in limited release grossing $131,411 in 23 theaters. That might not seem substantial, except when you realize the doc debuted simultaneously on VOD, a modern day necessity for small films that the technologically forward thinking Ebert may have been more than OK with (or not).
Directed by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), “Life Itself” is inspired by Ebert's memoir of the same name and features substantial footage of the Pulitzer Prize-winner months before his death. Many Americans know Ebert from his days as one half of “Siskel and Ebert at the Movies,” but this movie does an enlightening job revealing relatively unknown aspects of the longtime movie reviewer's life.
I didn't know Ebert personally, although a number of my friends were lucky enough to regularly correspond with him. My limited experience with Ebert was actually reflective of just how down to earth he was. Before I ventured to Park City, Utah to cover my first Sundance Film Festival, I was told that when I took the free buses that transport people from theater to theater, I would no doubt see Ebert on there with everyone else. That seemed ridiculous to me. Roger Ebert? He was an icon. An industry legend. He had to have a car or van or someone taking him around. But no, it was true. I couldn't have been at the festival for more than day or two before I hopped on a bus and stood next to Ebert as he and other patrons raced to get to the Eccles Theater. Last week I shared this anecdote with Chaz Ebert, his wife of over 20 years and a producer on the film, who beamed at the recollection.
Because of that Sundance memory I stupidly made the false assumption that Sundance was Ebert's favorite festival, but the doc spends a good deal of time chronicling his love of Cannes (he also adored Telluride and was a big supporter of Toronto). The film played on the Croisette after premiering at Sundance in January and I asked Chaz what the two screenings were like for her.
At the world premiere in Park City, she says she hadn't seen the final product beforehand and was happy her family was there to support her. It turns out the audience was too.
“I was seeing it with an audience the way Roger would have seen it,” Ebert recalls. “When it started I could feel people breathing and crying around us. I could feel people sobbing and people were laughing. It seemed like they were doing it all in unison. It didn't seem like there were different pockets. It seemed like we were one palpable organism.”
As for the movie's European premiere, Chaz laughs when recalling the misfortune of Cannes where, no joke, the projection system broke. “I thought Roger had caused it because he used to say, 'The most memorable thing about something is when you have a situation and it's not perfect. Something goes wrong and someone steps in to save the day. It sears it in your mind forever.'”
Ebert and James went up on stage and spoke to the audience for 30 minutes while the projector was fixed. She admits, “We didn't know what to do. I also remember thinking that Mr. Fremaux was introducing Roger's film in French because in the movie Roger says he flunked French five times.”
One film that Ebert likely would have seen if he had lived to attend the previous Cannes was Baz Luhrmann's “The Great Gatsby.” He passed away on April 3, 2013, about a month before the film's U.S. release, and as “Life Itself” chronicles, Ebert was a huge fan of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Ebert so often asked one of his best friends to recite one of the final passages from it that he eventually videotaped it for posterity's sake (footage that is seen in the documentary). If Ebert had lived he no doubt would have seen it and possibly reviewed it, because of his love of the source material. Surprisingly, the subject had never been broached with his widow before.
“When people ask me, 'What movie do you think Roger would have wanted to review?' thank you for reminding me because I don't care what other reviews were out there. Roger would have loved Baz Lurhamnn's 'Great Gatsby.' He would have,” Ebert says. “He would have dug that he got Jay-Z to do that score. He would have loved the different shots showing this African American guy driving past in the car and everyone stopping to look. It really had nothing to do with moving the story forward, but there are so many things that he would have loved in that movie.”
That's not necessarily a thumbs up, but it might be the next best thing. Pass that along to Luhrmann, won't you?
“Life Itself” is now playing in limited release and is also available On Demand.