THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY"
Bill Hicks may not have ever reached the same kind of cultural ubiquity that George Carlin or Richard Pryor did, but those who were familiar with the stand-up comedian loved him. He was angry, opinionated, and thoughtful. He called things as he saw them. Other comics adored Hicks for his straight-talk approach and ability to wring laughs out of difficult material. I remember seeing him many times on the David Letterman show and being enthralled by his approach. Sadly, Hicks died much too young, at age 32. His legacy is now being fully revealed in an excellent documentary called American: The Bill Hicks Story, on Blu-Ray from BBC America.
This is not your typical documentary. Until the final minutes, as his passing is recalled, there are no talking heads. Instead, personal photographs of Hicks, his family, colleagues, and friends are turned into animated photo collages, which play while those same people offer voiceover recollections. Performance videos (both homemade and professional) are interspersed throughout, giving us plenty of examples of how his humor/delivery changed over the years. This approach gives the film a highly personal feel, inviting us into Hicks' story rather than simply telling it to us.
And his story is fascinating. Hicks started doing stand-up as a teenager, where his routines were based around actual family incidents. (His folks didn't know he was sneaking into the city to perform in clubs he wasn't old enough to legally enter.) He left Texas and moved to L.A. to make a go at doing comedy full time, but got frustrated at the way things worked there. This led him back to Texas and the start of experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs. The "enlightenment" provided by drugs gave him inspiration to tackle larger societal issues in his act. Suddenly, his comic arsenal grew, and he was ready for the big time. Late night talk shows beckoned, but his no-B.S. style sometimes ran him afoul of the hosts; Letterman famously axed what would have been Hicks' final appearance on the show, only to apologize for it later. It was a shock to everyone when Hicks contracted pancreatic cancer just as he seemed poised to reach the next level of his career. His final days were spent performing, with such passion and drive that his illness could scarcely be detected.
The extraordinary thing about American: The Bill Hicks Story is how it takes us inside a brilliant comic mind. The film paints a vivid portrait of his strict upbringing, the rebellious streak that fueled his comedy, and the ever-evolving inspirations for his jokes. Any stand-up comedian will tell you that "honing the act" is a rite of passage; this movie traces that process. It shows us a very funny man who used the world around him - the people he saw, the culture he observed - to tell his version of the truth in a manner that made people happy.
What would the future have held for Bill Hicks? Would he have become a household name? Would his comedy have had a revolutionary impact? It's impossible to say, but there's no doubt that his was a unique voice, determined to challenge our views and perceptions. That's what the best comics always do - and they make us laugh while doing it. If you have any sort of interest in stand-up comedy, this is as fine a documentary as you will see on the subject.
( 1/2 out of four)
As presented on Blu-Ray, American: The Bill Hicks Story is more than a movie; it's a full-fledged experience, boasting five hours of bonus material. There are three hours' worth of extended interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, a panel discussion from the SXSW film festival, and a Dominion Tour in which the making of one of Hicks' televised comedy specials is examined.
Also in the 2-disc set: a look at the documentary's travel through the film festival circuit, a short segment on Hicks' music being remastered at Abbey Road Studios, a comedy tribute, several deleted and alternate scenes, some rare clips of Hicks on-stage throughout the years, clips from his audio journals, and more. To say the supplementary material is exhaustive makes it sound like there's too much here, and that's not the case. In fact, after seeing the main feature, you'll want to absorb all the bonus goodies. They serve as a testament to Bill Hicks' unique voice on the comedic landscape.
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American: The Bill Hicks Story is unrated but contains adult language and discussion of drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.