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River of laughs ; Documentary takes audience on tour with Joan Rivers

Apologies for the current critical cliche, but there's a genuinely jaw-dropping moment in the extraordinary and much-acclaimed documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

Rivers, then 75, is doing a tough but well-paying gig in some of the snowier and less sophisticated hinterlands of Wisconsin. ("Get the check" first, she instructs an assistant as soon as she walks into the venue. Then she tells the camera "ya leave New York, ya leave L.A., ya leave the world " Long pause, while she thinks of a chaser to water down the uncut snobbery of her initial, knee-jerk disgust "That's what makes it charming.")

Onstage that night, she does a Helen Keller joke. It's not a particularly good one, but in a career so based on outrageousness and unvarnished personal meanness (who, after hearing it, will ever forget her opinion of Princess Anne, not to mention Liz Taylor?), it's not horrifying either. We live in a world -- heaven help us -- where a hit rap by 3OH!3 called "Don't Trust Me" has this refrain: "Shush girl, shut your lips/Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips."

But a man in the Wisconsin audience explodes with the news that he has a deaf son and he's appalled. Rivers explodes right back at him, telling him he can eff himself, that she was once married to a man who lost a leg in World War II and that, in so many words, everything -- everything -- has to be joke-worthy to keep us human. Her mouth is going faster than her brain can think, but she knows that she's literally got mere seconds to dig herself out of a dark hole that could otherwise enshroud the rest of the performance.

And she does. Just a few seconds later, the man is silenced and the audience is back on her side. A few minutes after that, she advises the camera, "Save your money when you're young so you don't have to whore yourself out when you're old."

It captures with devastating accuracy the constant existential trial of the stand-up comic. Some of the best documentaries made these days -- "The Aristocrats," HBO's Don Rickles' portrait "Mr. Warmth," the distinctly lesser Jerry Seinfeld movie "Comedian" -- are about stand-up comics, and "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is right up there with "The Aristocrats."

It's a great film about a truly great subject that has been masquerading for decades behind a facade of relentless vulgarity and, at best, marginal relevance.

"I've never been a critic's darling," she says at one point. Not true -- at least in the case of this critic. When I reviewed her at Melody Fair in 1975, John Davidson was the supposed headliner, but I spent the first four-fifths of the review calling her one of the most important comics working. If she hadn't turned her Fox late night show against Johnny Carson into such a shameless promotional and plug machine, I'd never have left that position.

The more I think about it now, the more I'm certain that Rivers and Rivers alone -- not George Carlin or Richard Pryor -- is the true heir of Lenny Bruce's blowtorch groundbreaking. It's not for nothing that she once played Bruce's mother Sally Marr onstage ("My acting is my one sacred thing My career is an actress' career. I play a comedian.") At one point in this movie, she says "I'm furious about everything If I didn't have the anger, I wouldn't be a comedian."

Her language is brutal. So is her subject matter (AIDS, all varieties of sex). But most importantly, she believes in comedy and show business as much as Bruce so naively did (but Carlin and Pryor never quite did). That's why she's still out there performing and will be to her dying day.

This is a great film as far as it goes. I dearly wish there had been a tough journalist on board to fully pursue her claim that she was blacklisted on NBC late night up to this movie's filming two years ago. (Not true, Conan O'Brien, when he was on at 12:30 p.m., had her on.)

I wish there had been a journalist to fully pursue the daily wear and tear of life with Rivers. Her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide in declining health in 1987 after the Fox show failed. At the end of this film, the fate of her longtime manager is almost as sad -- and puzzling.

But what you will see is a stark, funny, revealing and weirdly touching intimate portrait of a remarkable American stand-up. She's a road warrior who knows all the dumb jokes people mock her with -- the plastic surgery lines ("No one has ever told me I'm beautiful"), the vulgarity (showing her massive, unbelievable gilt-on-gilt apartment, she says, "This is the way Marie Antoinette would have lived if she'd had money"), the marginalization after Carson's unappeasable anger ("I'm 75 and I'm still rejected. In this business you're mud for your whole life.").

And yet she'll still tell you with a ruthless candor that remains singular "the only time I'm really happy is when I'm onstage."

Now 77, her life is performing. Her performing is her life. This film, thank heaven, "gets" Joan Rivers.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK    

4 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Don Rickles and friends    

DIRECTOR: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg    

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes    

RATING: R for very rough language    

THE LOWDOWN: Acclaimed documentary about the great comedian.

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