Documentary offers fascinating, entertaining look at Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers documentary


Even if you have never found her bawdy comedy or her audacious persona the least bit appealing, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is an engrossing and highly entertaining documentary as it follows the comedian during her 76th year, which includes appearances at dumpy clubs, the firing of her longtime manager and a winning turn on “Celebrity Apprentice.” 

Within the first few minutes two truths about Rivers become abundantly clear – no one sees her entire face without make-up and she is a driven workaholic who loves money. As for the latter, Rivers will play your basement if the pay is good enough. She tells us that she’s been traveling in limousines since 1968 and she doesn’t plan on that changing, even if she has to hawk jewelry on QVC or write still another book. She cracks that her opulent Manhattan apartment, done up in Louis XIV, is “where Marie Antoinette would have lived, if she had money.”


The film also makes clear that Rivers has no filter. She spits out whatever comes into her head and is unabashedly unapologetic. Nothing on Rivers’ radar is off-limits if it gets a laugh, no matter how politically incorrect or vulgar.

“A Piece of Work” was directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose documentary “The Devil Came on Horseback,” examined atrocities in Darfur. That these filmmakers would steady their lens on Rivers may seem an odd choice, yet the result is surprisingly revealing as they let the queen of “Can we talk?” do just that. With archival footage and through Rivers’ recollections, what emerges is a candid profile of a true survivor who is abrasive, intelligent, considerate, competitive, compulsive, obnoxious, insecure and hysterically funny.

Some may only know Rivers as a poster child for why not to have plastic surgery and for her red carpet shtick with her only child Melissa (who tells us in the film she had a sibling: “the career”). But long before all of that (and long before Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman), Rivers was – and still is -cutting edge, both in her approach and in her delivery.

“A Piece of Work” shows that despite the often brutal world of stand-up, this icon has no plans of slowing down; in fact, fear to her is a blank calendar. At an age when others try to sink into the background, Joan Rivers will do anything – and we do mean anything – to command the spotlight.