It’s generally accepted that Bill Hicks was one of the greatest comics of all time. Like the best stand-up comedians his material transcended mere humor, offering biting and irreverent social commentary, insight into the workings of the world as only the wittiest of us can provide, peppered with just the perfect amount of dick jokes. After all, anyone can elicit a laugh- but to get people to laugh and think? That takes someone special.
Many people are familiar with the end of his life- his amazing specials, his infamous censored appearance on Letterman, his untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 32. But not as many are familiar with his roots- how he started out, what kind of person he was, and that’s what American: The Bill Hicks Story attempts to explore.
While the film obviously features large amounts of his no doubt familiar stand-up, it mostly features narration from his friends and family, anecdotes set to thousands of pictures from his life. This might sound incredibly boring but it’s no mere slideshow, as the creators of the film used new animation techniques to turn them into motion comics. In this way, the stories his loved ones tell are shown to us visually, and while it was easy to be skeptical about the technique from the trailer it works beautifully in the film.
Another boon for Hicks fans is that the filmmakers found tapes upon tapes of the man’s early performances in his mother’s house- some of which had not even been watched by Hicks himself. Since he started doing stand-up at the age of 15 (that’s right- what the hell did you achieve at 15?) it’s an amazing opportunity to see how his art matured and changed over the years.
That should be worth the price of admission alone, but if there’s any complaint one could make about the film it’s that it doesn’t show enough. Important topics are simply not even discussed, many questions about his life never revealed. For instance, it doesn’t ever talk about his girlfriends, which is truly a strange omission. In the press notes they reveal that the few exes they’d talked to were remarried and didn’t want to talk about their relationship, which is a shame. But even if it wasn’t first-hand it’s the kind of thing that defines a person.
And while there were a ton of interviews conducted (over 100 hours) the focus seems to be on his earlier years. It somewhat skims over his time in NYC and in the UK, and doesn’t even mention that he was just relentlessly touring. We think of him from his handful of cds and specials but the man was playing 200 shows a year.
Regardless, this is an incredibly touching homage to Bill Hicks. It’s hard not to become heartbroken when you think of what he could have accomplished if he were just given more time, but his family and friends seem to reveal that it was at the end of his life when he truly became determined to get his message out and worked on some of his best material, never letting his looming end deter him from his art.
We’re all lucky to have been able to experience him in our own little way, so this film is a real treat for those of us wishing to know a little bit more about him. One can only hope that it helps turn more people on to Hicks and influences a new generation to think for themselves and play from their hearts.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
American: The Bill Hicks Story is playing in NYC right now. It will open in LA on April 15th and expand to more theaters on the 22nd. Those who don’t get it in their cities will be able to pick it up when it hits dvd and blu-ray on June 7th.