Title: American: The Bill Hicks Story
Directors: Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
Stand-up comedy is one of the most difficult creative occupations out there, because it not only possesses all of the flame-out possibility of live theater, but it’s done alone. So a set that bombs isn’t just something that doesn’t work, it has the sting of a deeply personal rejection, and a career that sputters or fails to ignite isn’t just based on the whimsy of luck but, in the mind of comedian, has the capacity to be a personal indictment. The new documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story gives viewers a fairly compelling snapshot of these emotional highs and lows via Hicks, a sort of comedic wunderkind turned philosophizing social satirist who charted an unlikely course to semi-fame in the 1980s and early ’90s before succumbing, suddenly and shockingly, to pancreatic cancer.
Co-directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, American unfolds kind of like a shoebox diorama come to life. In similar fashion to the stylish documentary The Kid Stays In the Picture, the filmmakers blend old home videos with processed, pop-up layers and “animated” real-life still photos, assembled by Graham Smith, to help craft the illusion of a chronological narrative in which Hicks is still very much alive. Reminiscences from Hicks’ mother as well as his best friend and early collaborator, Dwight Slade, paint a portrait of uncommon adolescent ambition.
Born in 1961, and raised Southern Baptist in suburban Alabama and Texas, Hicks found escape and release in channeling his views of a restricted and isolated childhood (his brother and sister were five and seven years older, respectively) into impressions and Super 8 skits, which he filmed with Slade. When they were but early teenagers, the duo slipped out and snuck away to an open-mic night at a Houston comedy club. They were a hit. (They were also grounded upon their return.) Slade soon moved away, but Hicks continued to perform throughout high school and moved to Los Angeles after graduation, to take an occupational swing at writing and full-time stand-up. A life of near-constant touring followed, with some TV appearances and almost-big breaks interrupted by a bout of alcohol abuse.
One of the more interesting things about the movie is the intimate view of Hicks’ personal and professional evolution its trajectory affords. When he started out as a fresh-faced kid, his routine was all about his family, and included lots of character bits. Years later, after he’d kicked drugs and alcohol, a peer and friend caught one of his sets and was astonished to find it almost completely drained of these outlandish but psychologically revealing impressions. The friend urged him to incorporate some of that back into his set, but Hicks explained that he’d “done that already,” and was interested in other things.
From then on, his stand-up became more politically flavored, like a cross between Greg Giraldo and the deadpan aburdist stylings of Mitch Hedberg. In one bit, he questions the sincerity of the mainstream media, tongue in cheek, by saying, “The news is supposed to be objective. It’s THE news. But all its drug stories are bad. That’s not right — I’ve had some good times on drugs.” With these and other hearty libertarian political rants, it’s no big surprise that Hicks found more fame in Canada and Great Britain than the United States.
American is stylishly told, but engaging chiefly because Hicks is a bundle of contradictions — a teetotaler until his 20s who dove into alcohol and cocaine, then kicked both in relatively short order, but still maintained an appreciation for psychedelic mushrooms. Yet the film doesn’t really markedly deepen in intrigue as it unwinds, so at 101 minutes it’s a bit unwieldy. Despite being “introduced” in the opening credit sequence, the movie’s interview subjects aren’t really shown on screen until the last 15 to 20 minutes, leaving an audience to often try to figure out exactly who is recollecting what. Harlock and Thomas also make the utterly baffling choice to fade out on the audio reminiscence of Hicks’ older brother, Steve, as he recounts Bill’s cancer diagnosis — a moment that robs the movie of a big emotional punch. It’s a testament to the forcefulness and color of Hicks’ own personality that viewers still care about him.
Written by: Brent Simon