American: The Bill Hicks Story
DVD | Blu-Ray
Written, Produced, and Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
Starring Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth, John Farneti
Originally Released: October 23, 2009
“That’s right. When L.A. falls in the fuckin’ ocean and is flushed away, all it will leave is Arizona Bay” – Bill Hicks, 1993.
American: The Story Of Bill Hicks is actually a UK-made film that takes a look at the life, the history, the drive, the wit, and the significance of the visionary comic Bill Hicks. With a unique visual presentation, and interviews with family members and friends who he performed with, the documentary gives a unique inside view into the advancement of Hicks both as a person and as a performer.
American is one of those uncommon titles in which it is exactly as it says it is. Beginning from his youth, and family eventually settling in Houston, Texas; the journey tells of how Bill met fellow performer Dwight Slade, a meeting that would evolve into kickstarting Hicks’ occupation as a stand-up comic. Combining influences of comedy and rock music, Hicks would rise to become a respected above-average performer, which would become coupled with a harsh addiction to drugs and drink.
The dependencies had their cost, and after a long time of fighting the addiction and becoming clean, the journey sharpens Hicks vision, as the documentary then shifts to tell of how his act evolved, and how he became embraced by foreign audiences around the world for his vocal criticism of American hypocrisy, corruption, domination, and commercialism, among many other issues. Once embraced internationally, the movie shifts to tell of Hicks’ journey to passing, telling of how he dealt with pancreatic cancer.
The documentary is unique in the sense that, for the most part, the discussions with family and friends are mostly heard and not seen. Instead of being 90 minutes of talking heads, the filmmakers turn the experience into an audio journey with the unique visual creation of cut/paste animation – which really makes for magnetic viewing. Using photographs, video stills, stock photography, general animation, and some computer generated imagery, Bill’s tale is told in a manner that makes the shots look like three-dimensional slow motion photography. It is quite a pleasurable viewing experience.
The selections of live material are also compelling too. From the little seen early-days stand-up footage of Bill Hicks at age 16 in the Houston comedy club, to clips from his more well-known videos; they serve to help paint a picture of how much a journey and evolution this man’s life was. Bill Hicks wasn’t just Bill Hicks when you first saw him. He had to work hard to get to become the Bill Hicks you remember, and the documentary serves that history quite well.
The talking-heads interview style of documentary films do not appear until the story changes to discussing Hicks’ diagnosis of cancer, and the journey to his untimely death at the young age of 32. It’s a sobering transition, because the film is so seamless up until that point that you do not realize you’ve been not seeing this style of visual at all.
There are very few criticisms that can be made about this film; except for perhaps it’s not long enough: there are some tales from Bill Hicks history that are missing – notably his relatively public disagreements with Dennis Leary, and allegations that Leary lifted Hicks’ work for his own recordings. Perhaps this omission is in and of itself a statement by the filmmakers, but either way, it would have been interesting to hear and learn more about it.
It likewise would have been interesting if directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas had gotten an opportunity to speak with the guys in the band Tool, whose album Ӕnima was heavily influenced by the work of Bill Hicks, particularly with reference to Arizona Bay. Their album was a remarkable worldwide hit, and introduced a lot of younger folks to the work of Hicks as well – so for me, as a music and movie fan, this notable lack of Tool is a significant lost opportunity for the directors in my view.
Despite my whinings and musings, The Bill Hicks Story is a documentary well worth viewing. For Hicks fans, it gives you a unique perspective into his formative years, with some fantastic archival footage to match. For those new to Hicks, it is a rich introduction to a man who I am sure would have much to say about the current state of America if he were around today. In fact, it makes me realize with even more certainty, that the world would be a better place with more people such as Bill Hicks.
“Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace” – Bill Hicks, 1993.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5