American – The Bill Hicks Story review

Blending archive materials with animation, this new documentary about outspoken comedian Bill Hicks debunks the myths about the man while affirming his status as a legend.


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American - The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

What would Bill Hicks have made of the reverence he has been held in since his death from cancer in 1994? The most iconoclastic American comedian of his generation, he has countless imitators in contemporary comedy, and has been the subject of biographies, stage shows and now even a rumoured Hollywood biopic produced by and starring Russell Crowe; yet he never broke through the American mainstream in his lifetime, while his comedy burned through such idolatry like his permanently lit cigarette.

American: The Bill Hicks Story has no intention of tearing this reputation down – it was made with the full cooperation of Hicks’ family and friends, many of whom are heard interviewed on the voiceover, with their testimonies taking the place of a single narrator – but it explodes several of the myths that have obscured reality. The portrait that emerges is of a romantic figure, despite his flaws, and a man who was intensely focused on a career as a professional comedian from a precociously young age.

He was performing regularly at comedy clubs in Houston, Texas from his mid-teens. Hicks’ family granted the filmmakers access to their private archive of film footage of such performances, many of which are seen here publicly for the first time. The rage Hicks would later turn on political hypocrisy, the manipulations of those in power and other such subjects, was here directed closer to home – at his family, at former girlfriends – but his brilliance is clear. The film is at its strongest when covering these early years, and is particularly good at setting us in the world of American stand-up comedy in the mid to late 1980s, when Hicks performed in Houston with his peers and friends the ‘Outlaw Comics’ – Dwight Slade, Jimmy Pineapple, Andy Huggins and others.

The film moves through Hicks’ move to LA, his toiling on the American stand-up circuit, where he was held in huge esteem by his peers but neglected by a wider audience, the alcoholism and drug use that nearly derailed his career as promoters refused to book him (“like throwing gasoline on the fire”, as one interviewee remembers), and then the rock-star like success he achieved in the UK.

American largely avoids using talking heads, instead using a mix of archive footage, voiceover and ‘animated stills’ – a style borrowed from The Kid Stays in the Picture, the documentary about Paramount boss Robert Evans. Figures are moved from one still and placed on another, and zooms and animation are used to suggest three dimensions. It’s an ingenious approach, but at times over elaborate and distracting.

The 110-minute cut premiered at the LFF feels overlong, and repetitive on some aspects of Hicks’ life (particularly when dealing with his use of psychedelic drugs – though the filmmakers do work in Hicks’ brilliant routine on a rare ‘positive LSD experience’ news story, where a young man ‘realises all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration and we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively… and here’s Tom with the weather’), while others (such as his relationships with girlfriends) are passed over. Nevertheless, the film gets as close to Hicks the man as we can hope for, and he emerges as an even more courageous, visionary figure as a result.

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