The makers of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work spent a year shadowing the iconic comedian everywhere:
• On trips to England and Scotland, where she previewed the one-woman show she hoped to bring to Broadway (audiences loved it, but the British critics dashed her dream).
• To the stage of Comedy Central’s Joan Rivers Roast, where she dutifully endured the merciless barbs of other comedians (practically every other joke went after her multiple plastic surgeries).
• To Washington, D.C., where she nervously holds her own alongside the likes of Jon Stewart and Garry Shandling in a tribute to the late George Carlin.
• To the set of NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice, the first time she had appeared on the network since Johnny Carson had blacklisted her for agreeing to host her own late-night talk show on rival Fox in the 1980s.
• To a casino in snowy Wisconsin, where she shouts down a heckler with a how-dare-you fury, yet still manages to keep the audience on her side.
Rivers was 76 when the movie was shot, and, aside from the opening credits in which we see her in extreme close-up without makeup, she never appears without her camera-ready game face — one of the tell-tale signs that co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg had to abide by their subject’s rules while filming.
But although Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is unmistakably a fawning love letter to an amazing performer, its subject proves to be her sharpest, bluntest critic. The movie uses vintage footage to recount her career, including appearances on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show, during which she habitually pushed the envelope of what you could joke about on TV (in one clip from the 1970s, she does a bit about abortion but uses the word appendectomy instead).
The movie also covers her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987 after her talk show was canceled, and the birth of her daughter Melissa, who would so often work alongside her mother that they even played themselves in a TV movie about their lives. (When Melissa complains in the documentary about having an “image problem,” the assumption is that she is inseparable from her mother in the public eye.)
But the most fascinating stuff in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work comes when the filmmakers capture the simple day-to-day details: Rivers’ telephone conversations with her agent, pleading for a gig — any gig — because she needs the money; the way she brags about the grandness of her luxurious Manhattan apartment (the work may have slowed down, but she refuses to give up the lifestyle); her surprise appearances at small comedy clubs in New York, where she tests out new material (she remains, all these years later, an explosively funny stand-up comedienne), or a tender and amusing exchange with her grandson during a limo ride.
In such moments, Rivers comes across as someone much more complex and vulnerable than her abrasive “Can we talk?” persona. There’s a real woman under there, and she’s pretty great.
Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg.
Producers: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, Seth Keal.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 87 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Sunrise, Gateway; in Palm Beach: Delray Beach, Shadowood, Gardens.