The life and times of a comic who went too soon.
Dir. Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas, 2010, 102 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
I’m not nearly as educated in stand-up comedy as I want to be, but even I recognize the significance of Bill Hicks, and the effect that he had on the modern state of comedy. There are a lot of terrible comedians who try to defend lazy joke-telling (usually relying too much on shock humor) as “telling it like it is.” Hicks showed us what “telling it like it is” really looks like. American: The Bill Hicks Story unfolds the man’s entire life and career.
And I do mean his entire life and career. It starts with his birth, and doesn’t skip any large periods of his life. No moment that might seem significant in light of what he would later do is left out. It’s a bit overwhelming, honestly. I’m not sure the movie needs to be as long as it is. I’m also not sure who besides diehard fans of Hicks would be interested in learning about so many details of his youth. The doc is pretty slow going early on, but it picks up greatly once it gets to the time when Hicks began opening himself up as a performer.
Bill Hicks earned renown for boldly going after what he saw as wrong in society. He tackled culture, politics, and religion with equal fervor. He had an interesting up and down of fortunes in his life, having spent the first 21 years abstaining from drugs and alcohol before diving enthusiastically into them. After that he spent some time kicking various habits. He thought that expanding his mind was the key to becoming a good comedian, but he learned that it was really about striking at truth. He found his voice, and made good use of it. And then he died at 32 of cancer. Such a shame.
There’s a lot of great stuff here about what makes a good comedian, all demonstrated in Hicks’s development. Being truly great means matching your outer voice to your inner voice. If that inner voice has something insightful to convey, then the artist will flourish. That goes for creators of all stripes, not just comedians.
The movie features more animation than any doc I’ve seen, besides Waltz with Bashir. It’s quite skillfully done, with old photographs of Hicks and his friends and family composited into moving images. In fact, besides footage of some sets, there’s little raw “historical” material in the movie. It’s visually engaging, and it lets the film depict some of Hicks’s more psychedelic ideas about drug use and philosophy in a creative manner.
Another unusual thing about the doc is that it has no input from people in the industry. Many comics cite Hicks as an inspiration, yet none of their voices are here. This show is run by Hicks’s mother, his siblings, his close friends – the people who truly knew him best. Some things that fans of stand-up might consider vital in any conversation about Hicks (such as his frequent struggles with censorship, or his feud with Denis Leary over allegedly stolen jokes) are either ignored or minimized. This movie is all about Hicks as a person, and how the comedian everyone loves came from that person.
In other words, American is a story about humanization. In that way, I think Hicks would greatly approve of it. He wouldn’t want to be deified in any way, after all. He was just a guy speaking his mind. That is, in essence, what all the great comedians are. They’re just way more articulate about all the things, both important and unimportant, that we have to worry about in the world. Hicks’s gift was that he was especially smart, fearless, and compassionate. This doc shows how he got that way, and it’s a valuable look at the connection between life and art.