By Don Simpson | April 4, 2011
Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
There is a bloody good reason that this documentary by co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas is titled American: The Bill Hicks Story. Harlock and Thomas are British BBC veterans — and we all know how much the Brits love the American comic Bill Hicks. In 2010 he was voted the 4th on the UK’s Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups; and, though an American, he is certainly not held in the same esteem by most Americans. That is not to say that Hicks did not develop a dedicated cult audience in the U.S., especially after his premature death at the age of 32. (Note: Hicks did not die from drugs, alcohol or cigarettes — though he certainly indulged enough for death by overindulgence to be a possibility — he died from pancreatic cancer.)
Hicks’ dedicated fans claim that he is the most influential comedian since Lenny Bruce; and like Bruce, Hicks’ unique style of comedy certainly challenged societal values, bluntly addressed political issues and just plain pissed people off. Hicks followed the credo: A true patriot questions the government. Students and left-wing politicos loved him (many of them still do). Often fueled by psychotropic drugs and/or alcohol, Hicks: criticized the media and popular culture, describing them as oppressive tools of the ruling class; confronted organized religion and consumerism; targeted the first President Bush’s foreign policy, especially the Gulf war; made the Waco massacre easy fodder. All in all, Hicks was very upset by the rightward direction the U.S. was going under Presidents Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush. His untimely death denied us Hicks’ ripe opinions on the election of George W. Bush, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp, the war on terror and the economic collapse.
American: The Bill Hicks Story is told via interviews with ten friends and family members who knew Hicks the best: Kevin Booth, Steve Epstein, John Farneti, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault, and Dwight Slade. We are taken on a journey though Hicks’ life, from growing up as a Southern Baptist in Texas in the 1960s, to playing small comedy clubs as a teenager in the 1970s, and then into the 1980s and 1990s when he seemed like he might be on the verge of breaking it big. There is not much in the way of family home videos of Hicks growing up; instead, Hicks’ early years are recreated via an elaborate array of cleverly animated archival photographs with voice overs by the interviewees. There is, however, ample video footage of Hicks’ stage performances (including some of his early performances at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas), though I can already predict that most fans will be left wishing there was more.
Harlock and Thomas’ documentary focuses on the memories of the people who knew Hicks best; this is by no means a vehicle to convince naysayers of Hicks’ comedic (and political) genius. American: The Bill Hicks Story is more of an intimate and personal remembrance piece than a marketing tool for the Hicks’ estate. (Hicks being a hater of advertising and marketing probably appreciates that from wherever he is looking down on us dumb Americans from.) It is certainly an intriguing approach to capturing the spirit of a man like Hicks, I just do not feel like it develops into an interesting film. Though I respect and admire Hicks, I am by no means a connoisseur of his work; I suspect real fans might be even more disappointed than I am. However, there is enough rare footage of Hicks to make this a worthwhile viewing for fans nonetheless.