Director: Matt Harlock
***originally written 17 June 2010***
I’ll admit it upfront; I didn’t know a whole lot about Bill Hicks. Truth be told, I hadn’t really seen or heard much of his work. Clips here and there. Half hour of a televised set one night years ago. But what I’d seen gave me the sense of a man, and a style of comedy, that commands respect. I was invited along to see American: The Bill Hicks Story. I went.
The entirely-fitting title tells you what you need to know. This is the man’s life story as it pertains to his career as a stand-up comedian. His childhood is largely skipped over. After a brief intro we start out with anecdotes about Hicks and schoolfriend Dwight Slade in their mid-teens, performing skits to their classmates, dreaming of becoming a comedy double-act. Though they began trying to turn this fantasy to reality, it was doomed when Dwight’s father moved them away, leaving Hicks to fend for himself, going solo in small clubs at a startlingly young age. From there it’s on to critical acclaim and the respect of his peers. Renown. Addiction. Recovery. Tragedy.
Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas got to know the Hicks family in preparation for making this documentary, and by doing so were granted access to literally thousands of previously unseen family photos and a plethora of home-movie archives. From this great resource they have built an excellent piece of work. The story of Hick’s life is told by the people who knew him, but rarely are we subjected to on-camera interviews. Instead Harlock and Thomas take these photos and use them to build a moving (literally and figuratively) storyboard of collages that take us through the narrative. It’s an involving and entertaining experience, not least when we reach the portion of the story detailing Hicks’ experimentations with magic mushrooms.
Wisely this style doesn’t endure for the entire runtime. As the story takes us into the more established late-era sections of Hicks’ career – specifically the late 80s and early 90s – the film switches to a more source-footage-heavy focus. Grainy and lo-def television performances, along with off-the-cuff recordings of his work at smaller comedy venues. But as an audience we no longer need the visual tricks. By this time, Hicks was an auteur. Watching his performances is riveting.
Inevitably, it doesn’t end well. One interviewee’s words are faded out as the terrible truth of Hicks’ death are spoken, as though Harlock and Thomas couldn’t bare to hear the words. The focus of this part of the tale is not shoegazing however, but commending Hicks for filling his final months with as much creative activity as he could.
Hicks strove for freedom of speech to mean something. When his government did something he didn’t agree with, he spoke up about it. He put his opinions front and centre. Even if you didn’t agree with them, the strength of his convictions and his confidence in expressing them commanded respect. They still do. And I meant it when I said that title is entirely fitting. American. As much as he was prone to venting bile about the nation he called his own, this documentary reveals that Hicks lived the American Dream. He came from very little. He fought against the tide. He believed in himself. And he made something. American: The Bill Hicks Story is entertaining, interesting and, like the man, actually inspiring.