The reviews of the documentary “Life Itself” about the life of late movie critic Roger Ebert could be the very emblem of how to tell about someone’s life without needing to recreate it with actors. There was talk for a while of Ebert’s “Life Itself” autobiography being made into a movie with actors, and Ebert wanted Philip Seymour Hoffman to play the role. We can only imagine how brilliant that would have been until Hoffman’s tragic death put an end to the prospects. The next best thing was for someone to make a straight-ahead documentary that was as truthful as possible, including painful truths.
Thanks to filmmaker Steve James and successful crowd funding, we’re able to see a documentary that will probably be appreciated for decades to come. With CNN recently making a deal to broadcast it, you know there’s a significance that may set a new paradigm on how truthful an examination of a life should be when depicted on the big screen.
You can thank Roger Ebert for that who was probably the most honest notable person in the spotlight. Not many celebrities would be willing to openly tell about their illnesses and not be afraid to show themselves publicly after dealing with a physically debilitating procedure. If many celebrities are starting to write tell-all books that delve into their long list of skeletons in the closet, Ebert already made it clear earlier that he was no saint. When you see “Life Itself”, you know that any of the salacious things there were from his own pen and with the idea that much of that is life itself for many people of the past and present.
It’s a template for chronicling a notable life that you have to think will be endlessly copied during a time when biopics have come under fire for being so inaccurate. Should every movie about a notable person of the past be done in the “Life Itself” mode? Since most prominent people of the past left behind some kind of autobiographical material to work from, it might change the face of acting if biopics continue to falter at the box office.
Will 2014 Be the Worst Year Ever for Biopics?
After several failed biopics so far this year (including a musical one if you include “Jersey Boys”), you have to wonder if summer will pick up the slack. This August, “Get on Up” will chronicle the life of James Brown. Other biopics are also in the works, including one on Hank Williams, Sr. and Miles Davis as just some. Actors still feel like they can bring the essence of a renowned person from pop culture past that will give them a better shot at an Oscar. But audiences are increasing doubting how much truth they’re getting in those biopics, especially when there’s no warning beforehand that it could be speculation and not based on real facts.
The surviving families who uphold the notable legacies are the ones who suffer the most since biopics form a new public perception of who the famous person was. For younger generations who didn’t exist when those people were alive, only a documentary like “Life Itself” would ever give anyone a real understanding of what it was like to have them around in real life.
While actors continue to think that capturing the essence of a notable person is the bridge between truth and art, you have to wonder whether filmmakers will give biopics a more serious think in the future. Would we see the possibility of a merge between fiction and non-fiction where it’s a combination of acting and documentary? We already see some hints of that on cable, especially in the recent “Killing Lincoln” miniseries that aired this last year. It’s not hard to imagine “Life Itself” being made even better had Philip Seymour Hoffman filmed a few scenes re-creating true scenarios from Roger Ebert’s career.
Perhaps they should hire Steve James to utilize his brilliant docu style to make all future documentaries about notable people. This should include re-dos on the biopics from the past that might have been great art, though highly fictional views nearly ruining more interesting historical truth.