The template for the “mockumentary” was created and perfected simultaneously, 15 years ago, by Rob Reiner and his inspired collaborators in “This Is Spinal Tap.” It’s proven to be an irresistible genre for filmmakers ever since, resulting in such entertainment industry docu spoofs as Rusty Cundieff’s underrated “Fear of a Black Hat” and Joe Eszterhas’ execrable “Burn Hollywood Burn.” Robert Townsend’s “Jackie’s Back,” about the problematic “comeback” of fictional, long-forgotten pop/soul diva Jackie Washington, emerges as a successful variation on the mockumentary theme, as well as one of the more adventurous efforts from the Lifetime cable network.
Buoyed immeasurably by a terrifically funny performance by its star, Jenifer Lewis, it should reach beyond Lifetime’s usual demographic. It may be a bit too obvious in places and a tad overlong, but it’s still an amusing and entertaining bit of business, and the most comically consistent and least forced work by director Townsend since “Hollywood Shuffle.”
Pic is framed around an ostensible comeback concert that disintegrates all around the extravagantly spoiled and self-aggrandizing diva (if that’s not a redundancy) as she’s mounting it. Flashbacks reflect on her patchy career, from early bubble-gum hit “Yield” (a fair approximation of The Jackson 5’s “ABC”) to narcissistic epic “Look at Me” (“My Love for You Has Only Made Me Love Me More”) to that last refuge of the scoundrel (or fading diva), the sexually lurid ballad, in her case “Love Goddess” (“Lay Your Scepter in My Shrine”). Washington’s “hits,” as crafted by co-scripter Mark Alton Brown, composer Marc Shaiman and Lewis herself, are unflagging fun, and expertly ape their respective genres.
But every lavish, restraint-free career must have its low points, and documentarian Edward Whatsett St. John (Tim Curry) delights in dredging them up for Jackie. Her personal life is a shambles. Daughter Antandra (TV Blake) is the only family member speaking to her, and she’s clearly sheepish about how Mom cows her (when Jackie wants a drink, she inevitably orders, “Make it a double, Antandra”). Jackie’s allegedly triumphant return to her hometown is marred when the locals mistake her for “Star Trek’s” Nichelle Nichols. And don’t even mention Washington’s humiliating White House performance, where she inadvertently mistook Barbara Bush for her pet pooch Millie (they “have the same hair,” she explains).
Celeb cameos add to the fun, as stars offer “Reds”-like observations to the pathetic spectacle that is Jackie Washington. Penny Marshall pointedly notes, “Trying to come back from nowhere is a little hard.” Diahann Carroll blows steam at another exasperating rip from Jackie’s camp, and Bette Midler reveals that to Jackie’s mind, white people smell like wet potato chips.
Blaxploitation hero Rudy Ray Moore appears in Jackie’s ill-fated cinematic endeavor.
Other stars contribute to Jackie’s faux real world. David Hyde Pierce has a funny turn as a nerdy, tone-deaf pianist complicating Jackie’s rehearsal. Whoopi Goldberg oozes passive-aggressive hostility as Jackie’s snubbed sister. Tom Arnold appears as one in a series of misguided managers, boasting, “I cleaned her out, but if it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t have had the money to rip off.”
The film, perhaps in a concession to the network airing it, strains for a poignant finale not suggested, invited or warranted by what all that has preceded it. Curry’s performance is too obviously unctuous to earn many laughs, but Lewis’ appropriately outsized perf, rife with hilarious reactions to every setback, yet always mindful of maintaining a haughtily glamorous facade, keeps the film entertaining throughout.
Tech credits — particularly witty, keenly observed work from costumer Cliff Chally, production designer Mike Whetstone and set decorator Amy Vukovich — credibly help evoke a number of eras, as well as a range of socioeconomic lifestyles, in a low-key but ambitious fashion.