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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Most people know ground breaking and influential comic Joan Rivers for her numerous TV appearances and live shows. Her humour is strident, self-deprecating, expletive-laden and at times cruel, and no topic is off-limits. She has also had plastic surgery in an attempt to maintain a youthful appearance, and is painfully aware that this makes her the butt of many jokes. This fascinating documentary gives some insights into the more private life and times of Rivers, an undoubted survivor in the cruel and fickle world of show business who has enjoyed success for some fifty years.

The aggressive and crass comedienne is 75 and is still a workaholic who flies from one gig to another. Underneath the surface though is an insecure and surprisingly vulnerable artist whose greatest fear is the blank pages in her schedule, because that means that no-one wants her any more. Documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came On Horseback, The Trials Of Darryl Hunt) have been granted unprecedented access to the star, and the film reveals some intimate details about her life and career. The film’s subtitle - A Year In The Life Of A Semi-Legend - reveals that the film explores a busy twelve months in Rivers’ busy life.

The previous year was one filled with a lot of disappointments and set backs, but 2009 was a better year for the veteran comic. She appeared on Celebrity Apprentice, travelled to the Edinburgh Festival, wrote a book, performed in an autobiographical play, endured the humiliation of being the guest of honour on a Comedy Central Roast, and continued to do stand-up gigs around the country.

There is plenty of archival footage taken from her early appearances on the Johnny Carson show, and from her stand-up performances. The film teases out some brief biographical details, including her education at Barnard and honing her craft in comedy clubs in New York in the ‘60’s. She is candid about a series of setbacks, including public fall outs, her husband’s suicide and her continual self-doubts.

The film mainly focuses on the present. Despite her age Rivers shows no sign of slowing down. She is honest about her need to keep working, and aggressively chases down opportunities.
While this fascinating documentary is mainly for fans of Rivers, it does provide some insight into her life and will prove to be something of an eye-opener for those who know little about her beyond her carefully cultivated public persona.