This may sound harsh, but I’m part of a generation that knows Joan Rivers as a walking billboard for plastic surgery and little else. Regardless of how other comedians view her as an icon, or as one of the few women who paved the way for other female comedians (though she’ll be the first to tell you she’s still paving the way), to me, and many others, Joan Rivers has always been the woman who walks the red carpet interviewing those who are actually relevant. Boy, have I been on the wrong page.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work documents the actress as she turns 75, and how she continues to push forward every day looking for that next big break. It’s an incredibly candid documentary that shows Rivers as the obsessive workaholic she is, and doesn’t try to sugar-coat her rough edges for the sake of the camera. Never one to shy away from letting her opinions be known, the film is filled with her thoughts on various topics and individuals, though it’s all done incredibly well, and nothing ever comes off as an inane rant, or personal attack on someone. She also speaks about the hardships of her chosen career; however, admits it’s all she knows, and all she’s ever wanted. She opens up about her marriage, and the devastating impact it had on her and her daughter Melissa. The film is raw, honest, funny and blunt, much like Rivers herself.
Obviously not a spring chicken, Rivers acknowledges that she’s no longer able to get the prime dates for big locations and hot spots, and finds herself playing various small-time clubs, sometimes as early as 4 p.m. This isn’t always the case, but for someone who knows what it’s like to be in the spotlight, Rivers has a hard time fully accepting that she’s being passed up for younger acts, such as Kathy Griffin, and when she finds herself scrounging for whatever leftover dates she can book or middle-of-nowhere clubs she can play, it actually scares her.
Her frustration is understandable, as the pieces of her act you do get to see (and just her banter with the camera in general) is flat-out hilarious. Here’s a woman who’s going on eighty, and yet is still more cutting-edge than a lot of comedians today. The film shows clips of her when she was younger, playing The Johnny Carson Show, and her routine is still laugh-out-loud funny this many decades later! She tells a story about how Jack Lemmon walked out of a show when she was starting out, and called her jokes “disgusting,” but if anything, she was almost ahead of her time, and that’s what made her unique back then, and that’s what makes her still so hilarious now.
Her quick wit, and ability to make you laugh almost effortlessly is really something to behold. At one point in the film she’s playing a club in Wisconsin, and before the show she walks over to the refreshments table, picks up a bottle of wine, checks the date and cracks, “May…that’s a good month.” It shows that while she takes her work incredibly serious, she can also find it in herself to crack jokes about how far down the popularity scale she sometimes finds herself, and seems to use that to continue to press forward, always looking for that one moment that will shoot her back into the limelight.
Going into the film, I knew very little about Joan Rivers, as she isn’t someone that our generation really relates to, and or sees very much of outside of a few publicity stints her and there. Having seen the film, I can honestly say that she’s a very talented actress, with a wealth of comedic knowledge, and it all comes from her. She’s got no writing staff, and while you still need to be able to deliver the goods if you have one, it’s that much more impressive when you see Rivers take to any situation and come out with the crowd laughing using nothing but her own jokes, which she writes and stores all over her house, to do so.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is not only a reminder to all those who grew up with Rivers as to why she’s viewed as a comedic icon, but it’s also a door for the generations who missed out on her work on Johnny Carson, and her stand-up in general, to open up and witness what groundbreaking comedy truly is.
The video, shown in 16×9 1.78, looks great, and comes off incredibly clear. The audio, which fades in and out a lot during comedy sketches and into the next scene, works just fine and is 5.1 Dolby Digital. The fading in and out are there simply because the comedy routines, while funny, aren’t the story, and they have to be cut off somewhere to keep the movie going. If anything, it makes you want to go see her show live, just to see the entire set.
Audio Commentary – Listening to commentaries isn’t always an easy sell for your average film viewer, though this time it might just be one of the easier sells, as Joan Rivers basically does stand-up for her entire documentary. She gives extra insight into certain scenes, while just being on the entire time. Definitely the highlight of the entire extras package.
Deleted Scenes – There are half an hour of deleted scenes here, as this is a documentary, so obviously there was a lot of footage filmed and not used. It’s broken down into scenes, though they play in one lump sum instead of giving you an index to choose from. Those looking for more Joan need look no further, as you’ll probably enjoy what hit the cutting room floor.
TV Spots – This is a 33 second clip, which is a TV promotion for the film.
Sundance Q&A – This is a 12 minute Q&A session from Sundance, where Joan answers questions from the crowd, and throws in jokes for good measure. Again, fans of the film will no doubt want to check this out.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an insightful, heartfelt look into the life of a comedian and actress who continues to pave the way for young comedians. Rivers never holds back, and allows her insecurities and fears to be shown to the world in an attempt to allow people to understand her a bit more. This is a film that begs to be seen, and whether you knew of Joan Rivers previously or not, you’ll walk away respecting her as the cutting-edge comedic innovator that she was and continues to be today.
IFC Films presents Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Directed by: Ricki Stern. Co-Directed by: Annie Sundberg. Starring: Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Don Rickles, Kathy Griffin. Running time: 85 minutes. Rating: R. Released on DVD: December 14, 2010.
Tags: documentary, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers