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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers A Piece of Work documentary review
Joan Rivers in A Piece of Work. Seth Keal/IFC Films

Joan Rivers A Piece of Work documentary review

Where did Joan Rivers come from? Depending on your age (and comedy inclinations) she might seem to have popped out of nowhere, or always been part of the entertainment firmament.

Who is Joan Rivers? Is she a pop-culture joke, a showbiz survivor, a comic’s comedian or a borscht-belt hack?

This 2010 documentary answers these questions as it follows Joan through a year of her life. At 77, Rivers has seen all sides of showbiz, from that of a struggling ’60s comic to an instantly anointed (by Johnny Carson) golden girl to the heir apparent to Carson on the Tonight Show to having her own talk show, to almost losing it all and coming back into vogue (and when did that happen?).

We see early clips of her, we see her maniacal drive, her plush living quarters, her disappointments (a play in New York in 1973 called Fun Town was viciously slammed by theatre critics), her sometimes difficult relationship with daughter Melissa.

The strange thing I found while watching the movie is how much she reminds me of Courtney Love – or vice versa. It’s there in the oversharing, the single-minded intensity, the mixture of self-wonder and self-pity and self-deprecation.

It’s hard to imagine how a documentary filmmaker could go wrong with a subject as funny as Joan Rivers and as rich, and unique, as her life, and directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg don’t (go wrong, that is). A Piece of Work is compulsively watchable and engaging, and at 80 minutes just about the perfect length – it leaves you wanting more Joan. Which is exactly as it should be.

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