Thursday, 23 October 2014

"American: The Bill Hicks Story" Is One For The Fans

The film:
American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

The under-the-radar factor:
A UK production, it was shown at the 2010 South By Southwest Film Festival and released in the U.S. as a 2 disc box set DVD with several hours of extras. Aside from that...

The review:

"I believe there is an equality to all of humanity. We all suck" - Bill Hicks.

I'm still rather astounded by how many people have not heard of this guy or are only faintly familiar with his work. Their loss. Hicks was a stand-up genius; when on the ball (and not so drunk) he was worthy of being compared to the subversive, shock likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce in making you think and laugh, even when it felt a little too close to home with your own beliefs and actions. Pancreatic cancer ended his life at the age of 32 but not before he left this planet with sizeable (and often funny) food for thought.

American: The Bill Hicks Story charts the history of its subject in great detail and with tremendous visual panache. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas were able to convince Hicks' family to provide a stunning amount of photos spanning the comedian's life, which were then used in a type of cut-and-paste animation technique rendering impressive results. Family members, childhood friends, and the other stand-ups from the Houston area where Hicks grew up are interviewed at length, with a smattering of his routines. For a guy who lived such a tragically short life, there is a long and engaging story told here. After starting his live stage work in his teens (first as part of a duo, then going solo), his career accelerated to the point of at least being followed by fellow performers, if not the public at large in the U.S.A. (Hicks was to become in a way to the Brits what Jerry Lewis was to the French - an American cultural figure far more appreciated overseas than on his native soil.) The self-assured qualities he displayed in his earliest periods contrasted to the drunken ramblings he had to fight off later. Sadly, the height of his creative genius seemed to be obtained just as he reached his cancer stage and faced an infamous censorship incident on David Letterman's tv show. More on that shortly...

For those neophytes looking for an intro to Hicks the performer, this production is really not the answer. The major complaint to be had with American: The Bill Hicks Story is in the surprising paucity of actual performance footage (even though his personal territory is given full analysis). Those who have already come to know the man and his material will appreciate the intimate details that emerge regarding his short but accelerated life. While there is a fair bit of hero-worshiping taking place here, there are some unflinching looks at his down-and-out alcoholic period as well, helping to create a balanced portrait of the man at his best and worst.

Like I said, this documentary is highly recommended only for those who have already taken the Hicks comedic journey. Fortunately, there is a plethora of material to be found both online and in hard copy forms to initiate any rookie. A perfect example is the video below from the October 1993 performance on The Late Show with David Letterman that was never allowed to air...  until some 15 years later, when Letterman invited Hicks' mother on his show to apologize and run the clip. Have a look - if you're not into the pro-life campaign, anti-smoking messages... or Billy Ray Cyrus... you'll laugh a lot...

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