One of Richard Linklater‘s most admirable qualities as a filmmaker is his proclivity for experimentation. Of course, he has his comfort zones; those tend to encompass suburban thematic concerns and coming-of-age. But he has been known to dive deep into any topic or aesthetic he deems fit for his movies, and that’s what makes them all individually intriguing.
The realization that the same guy who directed the Before film series also made School of Rock and A Scanner Darkly wasn’t always immediate to me. Each of these films has their unique appeal beyond who was specifically directing them, anyway. Nevertheless, such movies — along with the likes of Dazed and Confused and Boyhood — marry together wonderfully into an unexpectedly cohesive if definitely risky filmography.
Linklater’s movies tend to be honest and naturalistic, whether he’s filming tiny snippets of Boyhood every summer for 11 years or revisiting Jesse and Céline’s courtship with every passing effort since the characters first meet on that fateful train ride in Before Sunrise. Hence, to hear that he will tackle a Bill Hicks biopic as one of his upcoming features actually feels about right. If nothing else, the late controversial comic spoke his mind, too.
According to Collider, an untitled film based on Hicks’ life (which was sadly ended by cancer 25 years ago) is getting the big screen treatment. Linklater — who is a Hicks contemporary and enthusiast from the same neck of the woods — will write and direct the picture for Focus Features.
This won’t be the first time a feature film about Hicks has been commissioned. In the realm of biopics, Russell Crowe was once preparing to craft a Hicks film of his own in 2012. It would have been penned by Mark Staufer, the author of transmedia thriller The Numinous Place, and was initially set to begin production in 2013. The project has stalled since then.
The definitive Hicks movie thus far is the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, which was produced by British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. The film could easily have been a more generic take on Hicks’ personal and professional life from start to tragic finish. Instead, it employs a compelling cut-and-paste animation method using still photographs of Hicks and the people closest to him. This is then overlaid by interviews with his family and friends, who are all fervent storytellers eager to discuss Hicks’ goals and achievements.
With a career that began at the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas — a city where he and his Southern Baptist family had lived since he was seven years old — Hicks built an iconic brand on extremely acerbic dark humor. He broached a wide range of topics including drug use, sexuality, existentialism, and conspiracies. Hicks notably adopted a personable onstage identity. However, what made his performances truly memorable was the anger and apathy that coated his routines as he criticized popular culture, religion, consumerism, and much more.
Hicks toured the United States extensively throughout the 1980s but amassed a much bigger following overseas, namely in the United Kingdom. Harlock himself has opined that this immense crossover appeal “wasn’t a cultural difference.” According to a feature by the Independent:
“…in the UK we were given full access to who he was. It wasn’t to do with our supposed more sophisticated sense of humor or that we ‘get’ irony, it was to do with the fact that he was able to do his thing in unrestricted surroundings.”
Hicks recorded a number of his stand-up sets, which resulted in Sane Man, Relentless, and Revelations. He was unfortunately diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1993, although he kept working through chemotherapy treatments. Many more opportunities were beginning to open up for him around that time, such as the possibility of his own UK talk show with Channel 4 and the recording of his comedy album Arizona Bay. The latter project was eventually released posthumously in 1997 alongside a more aggressive collection of Hicks’ work titled Rant in E-Minor.
Practically a mythical figure in the stand-up scene, Hicks inspired popular modern-day performers like Patton Oswalt, Russell Brand, and David Cross. He has been sampled in audio recordings by numerous live acts and bands. Even American comes across like a love letter to the touchstone in comedy that Hicks symbolizes. The film is certainly a hagiographic look at who he was, although that is to be expected from the fondness that its interview subjects have of him in the first place.
Regardless, American can still stand on its own, content-wise, because Hicks is a fascinating although polarizing figure. Hence, he’s the perfect subject for a biopic. Personally, Hicks was before my time. Watching recordings of his acts doesn’t endear me to his style either, due to the general hostility that he preferred to exude onstage. But Hicks’ material was still smart at its core and his strong point of view coupled with an undeniably magnetic stage presence made him electrifying all the same.
It’s easy to see how Hicks would have appealed to Linklater, whose own movies have a caustic edge to them as well. The long and frequently aggravating conversations that pepper the Before trilogy (especially its third installment), the vexation and biting critique oozing from Tape, and the whole three-hour slog of Boyhood definitely fit into the extreme end of Linklater’s realistic oeuvre.
And even when Linklater is simply observing, discussing, or lovingly portraying a snapshot of life, a sense of authenticity remains. His impeccable rotoscope animated features Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly comment so saliently on philosophy and social issues through the use of mesmerizing visuals. Bernie, the darkly comedic biographical film about mortician and murderer Bernie Tiede, is a delightfully weird satire with snippets of reality thrown into the mix. Dazed and Confused and its spiritual sequel Everybody Wants Some!! are more feel-good, but still about the identifiable oscillating nothingness and significance of teendom.
As the Linklater once said about Hicks:
“There’s not quite any others like him. They don’t speak in the same voice. You’d think people would take that torch and go with it, but it’s a rare combination of that kind of intelligence, mysticism, political, you know… his politics, his angle, it’s pretty unique.”
That makes Linklater the ideal guy to tackle Hicks in film form. There is no doubt that he would be fully committed to fidelity and truth anyway, but these guys really fit like two peas in a pod.