American: The Bill Hicks Story

On one day here at SXSW, I set out to get my fix of documentaries. Luckily, there were two docs playing that day that were right up my alley. One was Lemmy, the high-energy rock doc about one of my own personal rock heroes. I’ve already reviewed that film. The second was American: The Bill Hicks Story, a film about one of my favorite things — stand up comedy — and one of the most provocative people to have ever worked the craft.

Unlike Lemmy, which seemed to take the life of its subject less chronologically and more thematically, American takes a look at Bill Hicks’ life from his early childhood and the birth of his life in comedy, to his untimely death at the age of 32. Using animation that superimposes family photographs into animated landscapes in order to illustrate the story being told by those closest to Hicks, they recreate the early years of a life spent perfecting the craft of comedy. We learn about Hicks’ high school days, where he and close friend Dwight Slade would break out into impromptu routines in the middle of the school day. We see him as he sneaks out of the house to go perform at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, where he first began to gain notoriety.

We then see Hicks as he moves to Los Angeles, moving up the ladder in the world of comedy, but never really breaking through to mainstream audiences. We also see, of course, Hicks’ time spent under the influences of drugs and alcohol. Everything from binge-drinking before performances to weekends spent tripping on psychedelic mushrooms. It’s the classic rise and fall story, one that we’ve seen time and time again with celebrities. But there’s something more to the story of Bill Hicks, something that this documentary succeeds wonderfully in hitting on. The fact of the matter is that Bill Hicks’ life wasn’t cut short abruptly by his indulgence. He didn’t die suddenly from a drug overdose. His life ended quietly, taken by a cancer that the most important people in his life knew about.

In addition to rolling to a soft, touching and loving close, American also spends a lot of time on what is perhaps the most interesting thing about Bill Hicks, the comedian. It spends time showing us the evolution of Hicks’ comedy. In almost two-decades of comedy, starting in his teens, Hicks evolved greatly as a comedian. He went from the young kid making funny observations about his Southern Baptist upbringing, to the twentysomething funnyman known for being wild and uncontrollable on stage. Then, near the end, Hicks took comedy to another level — he used his comedy to speak out. He used his voice — loud as it may be — to challenge his audience and give them something to think about. And he did it in an interesting, entertaining way. This is something that few people probably realize about Hicks, the man was intensely dynamic. And his life wasn’t just about getting boozed up and screaming at hecklers. He was an intelligent, funny and often prophetic orator. And thanks to this documentary, he shall be remembered as such.

On a technical level, American is an impressive work from the British directing duo of Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. They employ an imaginative strategy (the animation) and create a clean narrative that brings Hicks’ early years back to life. They are also diligent in the selection of which Hicks on-stage moments to mix in, leaving us with a film that is interesting, then funny, then interesting again. But most interesting — at least to this reviewer — is the lack of talking heads in the film’s first half. Most of the stories we here from Hicks’ family — his brother Steve, his mother Mary and his sister Lynn — is done as narration. That is, until the very end, when Bill’s death is addressed. When we finally see his family on screen, talking about his last days, it is unexpectedly effecting. It’s just one creative little way that Harlock and Thomas accomplish their goal of putting together a movie that shows Bill Hicks to be a comedian who deserves a place in history, among the greats.

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