WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: The story of Bill Hicks, hugely influential comedian who found greater popularity in Britain than his own country, as told by his family and friends.
When Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32, the world lost a uniquely caustic comic talent, a man considered a genius but who only fleetingly tasted the fame and success many believe he was due. American: A Bill Hicks Story ingeniously explores his life and career.
William Melvin Hicks grows up in Houston, Texas, the son of strict Southern Baptist parents and playful brother to older siblings Lynn and Steve. Bill is bitten by the comedy bug (by Woody Allen’s turn in Casino Royale, of all things) and finds a kindred soul in Dwight Slade. They both find a malleable driver in Kevin Booth and at the ridiculously young age of 15, the pair head to Houston’s comedy club to do a set. Amazingly, they’re not only tolerated, they’re quite a hit, and although an almighty parental bollocking inevitably follows, Hicks’ future is decided and he becomes a regular feature, notwithstanding Dwight’s departure. Dwight and Bill reunite in Los Angeles but despite some exposure, it doesn’t work out; so Hicks returns to Houston and – with the discovery of both hallucinogenic mushrooms and alcohol – discovers a harder, more scabrous side. For a while the booze takes over, and it threatens to stall his career permanently; so Hicks heads for New York and emerges clean – alcoholically speaking – and more brilliant than ever. However, just as Bill gets big laughs in Canada and Britain (including ‘Edinberg!’) and his luck seems about to change, he’s diagnosed with cancer. Hicks may have raged against everything else modern America has to offer, but the dying of his own light is one fight he won’t win.
The biggest favour you can do for Bill Hicks is not to over-praise him. He wasn’t particularly spontaneous, nor was he very prolific, and his style is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea – I have a very good friend who saw Hicks live in 1992, and wasn’t at all fussed. So if you’re a Hicks virgin who has been begged to see this by a fan, don’t expect non-stop mirth. Hicks was no joker, no gagsmith, and in his passion to express himself he would, as often as not, leave his audience behind. But American: The Bill Hicks Story does a great job of showing why he is so important, and why his contemporaries are so sincere in their praise. Faced with a country kept in check by advertising, pointless wars and wilful ignorance, Hicks challenged America to know itself, delivering spell-binding material which encompassed capitalism, politics and philosophy, all delivered with searing conviction and devastating timing. He also preached (yes, preached) a vital message of self-awareness, of love overcoming fear; his was a rare renegade voice of reason in a country where reason was and continues to be in short supply (his comments on flag burning and Waco are both good evidence of this).
If you’re not a Hicks virgin, but don’t know too much about the man behind the message, American fills in a lot of gaps, using a surprisingly large amount of footage (family recordings as well as videos from gigs) and inventive animation to reinforce the people who really knew Hicks, his family and best friends as well as his comedy contemporaries: Steve Epstein, Jimmy Pineapple, Andy Huggins, John Farneti. There is wonderful footage of a teenage Hicks at Houston’s Comix Annex, too, where you can tell the crowd are laughing without being the slightest bit patronising. Clearly taking inspiration from The Kid Stays in the Picture, the animation of photographs convincingly reconstructs and enlivens Bill’s early years; and the ultra-bright visualisation of Hicks’ mushroom trips both provides a useful break from the inside of smoky clubs and gives the viewer an insight into how drugs informed his act. Hicks’ illness is also sensitively handled, so while there’s inevitable pathos involved in Mary talking about her son’s death, the film is never overly sentimental – though it‘s comforting to see how close he was to his family. The tragedy of Bill dying just as his career seemed about to pick up is also left to speak for itself, which is entirely appropriate given Hicks’ views on death.
For all that, The Bill Hicks Story has a couple of chapters missing. We never find out whether Hicks was happy or lucky in love (there may be a very good reason for this, but if there is we’re not told); also, much of his more outré material – I’m thinking particularly of ’goat boy’ – is omitted, together with any discussion of his attitude towards women. The result is not a hagiography, by a long shot; but there’s not perhaps the balanced, complete view of the man that a rounder exploration would have given. Also, while it’s nice to hear music written and performed by Hicks, some of the riffs do become wearing through overuse.
By and large, though, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a bold, brave telling of the life of the confrontational comedian, and whether or not you enjoy the film will largely depend on your take on Hicks himself. If you’re in advertising or marketing, you might not be so keen; but personally, I find his unique, bleak take on the world exhilarating: if you ask me, virtually everything you need to know about life is contained in the ‘just a ride’ speech which wraps up the documentary. American does Mr Hicks proud, and whatever you think of his crude, cynical idealism, the film reminds us that his unfettered, unorthodox voice is sorely missed – and needed now as much as ever.