American: The Bill Hicks Story

American: The Bill Hicks Story

*****

Reviewed by: Robert Munro

At the age of 32 Bill Hicks died from pancreatic cancer. This film, from British documentary filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, aims to provide us with a deeper understanding of the intelligent and articulate comedian who had the ability to slip in the crudest of dick jokes between funny, thoughtful and honest musings on spirituality, philosophy, politics and whatever else sprung into his wonderful mind.

To those of us who are already converted to the Church of Bill, there will be plenty of familiar ground here – Hicks left us with a sizeable legacy to be found in the many books, recordings of his music and stand up, video recordings and a few unfinished scripts that exist. However, one of the things that makes this film so exciting is the additional, supplementary material we are given in the form of home video and unseen stand up footage, to enhance our knowledge of Bill.

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To those who aren’t as familiar, the film details all the necessary biographical history you’d expect in a documentary of this nature. Friends and family members narrate the story of Bill’s life from his early years growing up in a strict Baptist family in Texas, worshipping Woody Allen from the confines of his bedroom in sleepy suburbia. The way in which the filmmakers interweave the voices – we rarely see traditional talking heads – of those who knew him with animated pictures of Bill and his friends is something fresh and unique, which gives an interesting visual dimension to what can often be a necessarily tedious aspect of documentary filmmaking.

The aforementioned pictures are edited in such a way as to give us an impression of this as a drama, a thrusting narrative. This is particularly well achieved when best buddy Dwight Slade puts on Bill’s voice and regales us with conversations between the two: the pictures moving and alternating in a shot-reverse shot fashion. While this proves an interesting way to retell the story of the talented but tortured comic, it is in the archive footage of Bill doing his routine where the film really sparkles.

Evidence of Bill’s precocious talent is displayed in early footage of the improbably young, fresh-faced and slim – the things substance abuse will do for your figure! – William Melvin Hicks performing in his local comedy club at the age of 16. The innovative use of photographs of Bill and his friends show the story of him sneaking out of his parents house and into a getaway van parked over his back fence, the comical sight of his face clambering over the guttering of a roof above his parents kitchen providing a belly laugh. Then he’s appearing in the Comix Annex in Houston with Dwight, and before long he’s starring on his own, drawing laughter from the adult crowd as easily as water from a well with, surprisingly, clean-cut riffs on his parents, teachers and other local characters.

Bill’s early rise was rapid and he moved to LA at the tender age of 19 to ‘make it’ as a screenwriter and a comic. Ultimately this proved to be an unhappy period of his life and he returned to Houston several years later, heartbroken after a failed relationship and bitter at the hypocrisy of the LA scene. Bill’s return to Houston, and his imminent descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, would ignite that particularly quick-witted misanthropy which would define the rest of his career.

The troubles that follow are all given due reverence. Like Bill’s approach to drink and drugs, the filmmakers never attempt to take sides. Bill was a grown man, entitled to the freedom to make his own decisions and eventually found the strength to pull himself out of his self-imposed fog before he imploded in a serious way. The sobering up of Bill allowed him to uncover yet another level to his comedy. The bitter, angry ramblings of a drunk quickly sharpened into the acerbic, yet humane, observations into the people and society he loved and loathed in equal measure: the Americans.

Bill could undoubtedly be brutal to the point of cruelty in his comedy, and regular detractors point towards misogyny in his routines – it’s safe to say he had ‘woman troubles’. What is undeniable though, his that his comedic brilliance and uniquely articulate perspective on the world ensured that he was (and still is) unlike any other stand up.

American: The Bill Hicks Story provides us with a wonderful glimpse behind the curtain of performance and lets us see the sensitive, warm, patriotic and fiercely intelligent man we all suspected lay beneath the act. As the first sentence warns – and so does Bill in one of his more famous skits about the failed assassination of Reagan – the good die young, and this film ultimately leaves you with a deep sadness and sense of injustice at Bill’s untimely passing.

Reviewed on: 18 Aug 2011
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Documentary examining the life and legacy of the controversial comic.
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