Roger Ebert: A life in (and beyond) film

Roger Ebert in a Chicago screening room in June 1984. Kevin Horan/Magnolia Pictures

It is only partially true that Roger Ebert found his voice after he had lost the ability to speak, but the irony is attractive, and evident to all who knew the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago newspaperman and film critic, whose body in his final years was ravaged by illness. Denied his voice when cancer and the concomitant radiation treatments cost him his lower jaw, Ebert expanded his journalistic gifts to online blogs, crafting elegant epistles about much more than the latest Hollywood fodder.

In his online writing -- which grew into conversations with readers on his site, rogerebert.com, and then in his 2011 memoir, "Life Itself" -- Ebert wrote on politics, contemporary society, and the power of childhood memory. He made his deeply private struggles with alcoholism and AA public, and exalted in his late-in-life romance with his bride, Chaz.

It was saddening when Ebert succumbed in early 2013, his death preceded by a typically erudite blog posting titled, "A Leave of Presence."

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Critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
Buena Vista Television
Film lovers and filmmakers would no longer have his enviable insights into movies; those who knew him personally would miss a complicated man who was intellectually curious, being capable of warmth and arrogance, love and vanity, generosity and self-destructiveness, humor and fits of pique.

A new documentary, also titled "Life Itself," generously captures the essence of the man who was both a co-star of the syndicated "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies," and a bleeds-ink newspaperman who tasted the thrill of writing -- and showed a precocious knack for it -- at an extremely early age.

The film is directed by Steve James, who had been heralded by Ebert for his breakthrough 1994 documentary, "Hoop Dreams," an unflinching look at the trials facing a pair of high school basketball players over the course of several years. His portrait of Ebert is just as unflinching, heartfelt, and ruminative about the essence of life -- the passion expressed, through work or love, that defines us.

After playing at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals earlier this year, it is being released by Magnolia Pictures on Friday. It will also be available via Video on Demand.

"Life Itself" revels in Ebert's love of film; his love of sharing his point of view; the glamorous, bar-fueled career of an award-winning print journalist; and his rapacious sparring with his TV counterpart, Gene Siskel.

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Film critc Roger Ebert and wife Chaz Ebert attend the 2010 Webby Awards in New York City.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
And like its subjects, "Life Itself" does not shy away from the very ugly truths regarding Ebert's medical conditions, the up-and-downs of his condition during and following hospital admissions, and the strain it puts on his family. Ebert passed away four months into filming, but was a constant presence to the filmmakers -- in person, or through text and emails -- up to the end.

"In the beginning he had a few reservations about it," said Chaz Ebert, speaking in New York City recently about the prospect of being filmed. "We are not reality-TV people, so we did not cherish the idea of having cameras follow us around. That was something we had to think long and hard about."

But the attraction for the documentary was to honor her husband's talent, which was also his personality: "His writing was so beautiful, it's so clear but also so humanistic. He wasn't afraid to let his emotions show. He didn't pretend to be completely objective. I thought it was important to show this.

And, with James leading the project (which was executive-produced by Martin Scorsese and writer-director Steve Zaillian), Chaz said, "We knew that the process would be dignified."

Talking heads in the film include Scorsese and other filmmakers whose careers have been boosted by Ebert's writing, including Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Gregory Nava.

In his final years Ebert employed a computer-generated voice -- modeled after recordings of his TV shows and commentary tracks -- which gave him a measure of two-way communication beyond scribbles on notepads. For the film's soundtrack, voice artist Stephen Stanton recorded extracts from Ebert's memoir. The audio -- so vividly alike to that familiar voice -- is not a stunt, but a terrific reminder of what was lost, when compared to the computerized voice that Ebert is heard using to speak with family, friends and medical staff, evincing joy or frustration -- a man robbed of the gift of speech and with too many words to express.

"We wanted to channel Roger's voice from his memoir, to let Roger be Roger," said director Steve James, who lulls audiences into believing they are hearing the real thing, even after hearing the narrator say, "When I lost my ability to speak ..."

"I think that a voice is so much of what makes us who we are," said Chaz. "Whether you're a male or a female, tall or short, thick or skinny, you don't know until you lose your voice how much of an identifier of your personality it is."

Like his voice, a documentary as winning as "Life Itself" captures this writer's personality and times with the fierce, buoyant joy of an uncompromised life lived.

To watch a trailer for "Life Itself" click on the video player below.

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  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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