When looking at Life Itself, the remarkable biography of legendary film critic Roger Ebert, it’s worth thinking about how this story is told, given that the main character doesn’t speak the way most of us do. Ebert’s bouts with cancer in his salivary gland led to the removal of his vocal cords; he could only speak by typing through his laptop. These circumstances would pose daunting challenges for many a filmmaker, but director Steve James resourcefully employs a number of tactics to give voice to Ebert’s story.
James opens the film with his own brief voiceover to set the stage. But for the rest of the film his voice is largely absent; the dominant narration is Ebert’s, realized in a number of ways. Passages from Ebert’s book memoir Life Itself are narrated by Stephen Stanton, whose vocal qualities bear an uncanny resemblance to Ebert’s. Stanton also narrates excerpts from some of Ebert’s reviews. Listening to the reviews compared to the memoir, one reflects on how a person adopts different voices in their writing, depending on the occasion. But in Ebert’s case, there’s not that much of a difference: his reviews were as deeply infused with candid personal reflection as his autobiography. The film also gives glimpses of Ebert’s blog posts and tweets, the online spaces that enabled him to express himself after he had lost his speech. And most pointedly, it also includes email exchanges between Ebert and James, which reveal some of Ebert’s concerns in making sure that the film truly spoke for him.
Of course, Ebert isn’t the only one who does the talking in Life Itself. James interviews nearly two dozen people on camera, with a dazzling variety of connections to the man: from his college buddies to his fellow film critics; colleagues at both his newspaper and television show; from world famous filmmakers to his favorite drinking buddy; and, of course, his family. Listening to their testimonials, what comes through again is the power of Roger’s voice, how it shaped relationships as well as people’s careers and lives. One might even be able to hear a bit of Roger speaking through them. In its structure as well as its content, Life Itself isn’t merely the story of a famous film critic, but a testimony to how a voice manifests itself among the people in one’s life. In that sense, this movie might speak for all of us.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. He tweets at @alsolikelife.