A big part of making an engaging documentary is finding the right subject. Ricki Smith and Anne Sundberg strike gold with Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Joan Rivers has enjoyed a rich and expansive career with many highs and lows that makes for great drama. However, what helps Smith and Sundberg's documentary rise above other entertainer/celebrity biography films is its focus. The film follows Joan Rivers in 2008 for one year. While Smith and Sundberg had to know that Rivers had a new play premiering in Scotland and about her scheduling concerns, they could not have known that far in advance that she would be filming The Celebrity Apprentice at the end of the year that could elevate her career again. That's luck and the directors do not take it for granted.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work uses one night of Joan's stand-up as the framing device for the film. Decked out in a gold jacket and playing to an intimate crowd, Joan's jokes--largely personal--are used to set up the various segments throughout the year. A bit about her aging body becomes a recurring gag in her day to day life. Another joke about Kathy Griffin becomes a dark strain of simultaneous admiration and disdain. It's an easy way to slide into the more personal aspects of her career. The raucous shock of her humor is still strong; it just happens to come from a place of truth.
The most interesting part of the documentary is seeing how human Joan Rivers really is. For all the extravagant elements of her lifestyle--the humongous home in NYC covered in gold leaf, the unending supply of furs, the 24/7/365 make-up and hair team--she's deeply normal. She works for a living. She struggles to keep up with the life that she's lived for years. She worries about the future and reminisces about the past. She's constantly seeking approval of others and has a habit of telling the same corny jokes over and over like anyone else. Her path in life is unique; her humanity is universal.
It's very telling when a documentary can really focus only on its single subject. Only three other people are interviewed directly for the cameras. They are essential to Joan's story. If Joan didn't constantly talk about her daughter Melissa, fellow comedian Kathy Griffin, or her manager Billy Sammeth, Smith and Sundberg would have no need to interview anyone else. Joan Rivers is engaging enough as a subject that she doesn't need outside support for interest. She is the interest.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an entertaining documentary about a misunderstood performer. You'll walk away with a deeper understanding of what makes the long-standing comic mainstay work. Even knowing how certain events pan out doesn't take away from the drama and interest of the film. It almost adds to it, like a work of ancient theater. It's catharsis for a long career that will last as long as Joan wants it to last.
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