A passing factoid in Life Itself is the fact that Roger Ebert had the ability to write detailed film analysis/reviews in just thirty minutes. As I attempt to do the same for this review, the improbability of writing anything of value in this time frame is only overcome by the fact that Life Itself can easily and simply be described as a great achievement.
Steve James’ background in vérité documentary film-making makes for a strong observational element that reveals Ebert’s physical and mental condition in the last months of his life, however his first venture into what is also a more conventional type of biographic film, complete with talking heads and existing footage of Ebert, transcends anything of the sort and somehow legitimises this formulaic tradition as a creative art form without subverting any of its principles.
Emotions were high as the film screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest this Sunday, and were piled even higher by the layers present in the moment – delegates brought together by a love for film, a film about a man passionate about film, a film-maker who deserved to make the film, and tears temporarily paused for an all-knowing mass outburst of laughter as Werner Herzog’s voice begins to talk over a shot. To watch Life Itself is to understand why sometimes two thumbs up is all that’s needed.