Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Like her, love her, or completely loath her, Joan Rivers is one hardworking woman. Since beginning a stand-up comedy and acting career in the 1960s, she hasn’t stopped. Seriously. Just watch A Piece of Work and you should have a new-found respect for the crass red carpet staple.

The insightful documentary follows the then-75 year old working diligently on a new play about her life, playing comedy clubs big and small and constantly trying to find new gigs to pay her bills and feed her hunger for stardom. She is down on her knees in the bathroom writing jokes (how many 75 year-olds are able to do that?), and performing pratfalls during rehearsals for an upcoming comedy roast. As Rivers states in the film, she is one of those “if she isn’t performing, she’s no one” types of people.

A Piece of Work is a sympathetic study of a workaholic outsider. Although she has been working in the industry for almost forty years, many will agree that Rivers has yet to be appreciated as much as some of her peers. Tracing the history of the comedienne’s career, the filmmakers explore how a career that was once so promising, has, in some circles, become a bit of a joke. They wonderfully interweave the past and present, letting Rivers tell her story as her continuous struggles as a performer wage on.

Stern and Sundberg must be commended for the material Rivers gives them. She candidly speaks with such insecurity and emotion that we are given a woman that is a complete opposite to the one we’ve been exposed to over the years. One may think plastic surgery would hide emotion, but even that specific subject brings Rivers to tears - real tears. To earn Rivers’ trust on such revealing topics is a great achievement and skill. But my wish is that more of these moments existed throughout the film. Sitting down and talking with Rivers and experiencing how frail and honest this woman is was definitely a game-changer on how even I, a fan, felt about her. I think these instances were very heartfelt, and true, so I would have been happy with more attempts to show her humanity.

The film also could have used more footage from early on in the performer’s career. I understand expense might have been an issue, but it really would have helped a younger fan like myself understand just how revolutionary her subject matter was for its day, and how established she was before many of her setbacks began to pile up.

Winning an award at Sundance this year for Documentary Editing, A Piece of Work is very deserved. Creating a story with no narration and pretty much letting Joan Rivers’ words guide the path for the narrative would not be an easy task, but the film was engaging and easy to follow, if only a little long. The comedienne’s presence is undeniable and you can’t wait until she lets loose another one of her vulgar tirades. It’s all for a good laugh and I hope to experience more in the future.

3 1/2 out of 5


  1. "A Piece of Work is a sympathetic study of a workaholic outsider."

    Aye Dave, it's a terrific essay here on a film that for me ranks as the best documentary of the year (or at least on even ground with the one on BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD) I never cared for Rivers, but this film managed to give her story a charismatic spin, and a sense of empathy. Yeah, they could have gone further, but as is it rivets and entertains in a way that few documentary films do.

  2. Thanks for your comment Sam! I agree - very very entertaining documentary. I think it would be a difficult task to follow any comedian and continuously entertain an audience with the material. You run a risk of over-exposure and annoyance.

    I hadn't heard of Basquiat: The Radiant Child until I read your comment. I will definitely keep it in mind. I am still looking forward to catching Restrepo at some point as well.