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STUDIO: BBC Warner
RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes
- Extended Interviews
- Austin Panel at SxSW
- Dominion Tour
- Deleted Scenes
- 10 Featurettes
- Rare Clips
- Bill’s Audio Journal
- Audience Reactions Trailer
Bill Hicks has finally gained some fame and notoriety in the States, so I guess it was time to make a documentary about him. He’s someone people should know about.
Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. Featuring Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth, John Farneti, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins and David Johndrow.
The life and premature death of legendary stand-up comic Bill Hicks as told through interviews with his friends and family and a motion comic photo collage.The Lowdown
“Good evening, my name is Bill Hicks. I’ve been on the road now doing comedy 12 years, so, uh, bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plow through this shit one more time. … I’m kinda tired of traveling, kinda tired of doing comedy, kinda tired of staring out at your blank faces looking back at me, wanting me to fill your empty lives with humor you couldn’t possibly think of yourselves.”
Bill Hicks- Dark Poet
Before sitting down to watch American, I wasn’t too familiar with the story of Bill Hicks other than knowing he’d died of pancreatic cancer at 32 and that Denis Leary is widely considered (by the world and Hicks himself) to have ripped off a shit load of material from Hicks. I’ve seen Bill Hicks: Live and Sane Man more times than I can count, but I’ve never really bothered to learn all that much about the man. Now, after watching American, I can say I know more about the man, but none of it adds up to make me feel like I actually know him. I know who his friends are and what they thought of him and how they spent their childhood doing stand-up shows, but I feel like I only got to skim the surface of who this complicated and difficult man was. It sometimes seems like American is more interested in showing the nifty things it can do with editing software than in getting to know the heart of the man.
The first (and seemingly largest) chunk of the movie deals with Bill’s childhood growing up in Houston and how him and his best friend Dwight were a comedy duo that were starting to make a name for themselves around school and locally. It’s fascinating to imagine Hicks sharing the stage with anyone, as his comedy seems such an offshoot of his personality that combining it with anyone else’s sensibility almost seems sacrilegious. Once Bill’s friend moved away, he was forced to turn his routine (which mostly consisted of character work and broader comedy) into a one man show. He’s driving into Houston at 15 in order to get time on the stage at the only comedy club in the city and using this time to keep honing his voice down to the one we know and love. After moving to LA and writing a screenplay that never got produced and being offered work as a writer for television, he realized his interests lay exclusively in stand-up, period, and everything else was just a waste of time. So he moved back to Texas and focused on his jokes and eventually became one of the most sought after comedians in Houston, even though he still felt he wasn’t living up to his potential. At 21, he tried his first drink of alcohol, and that’s where the Bill Hicks we know was born.
The childhood stuff is interesting, only because it gives us a sense of who he was before alcohol and other drugs became such a large part of his life. All of his younger days are shown through still photos that have been animated like a pop-up book, while his friends and family talk about the version of Bill that they knew. It’s all very competently directed and moves at a brisk pace, but it all just feels like a check-list being ticked off as we move through the bullet points of his days as a minor. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but maybe more of a focus on the talking heads as opposed to the family scrapbook might have given us a little more insight into the man instead of giving the documentary the feeling of a bio-pic more than anything. Once he turned 21, though, and decided to try some liquor for the first time, it unlocked all of the rage he felt about the government and the world and what American’s priorities were when it came to the shit we were willing to get worked up over. But previously in the documentary there’s nothing showing that he cared about politics or the hypocrisy of advertising or American apathy enough to then build his career around discussing it. It seems like a very sudden shift from joke teller to social commentator and I know there must have been more of a gradual change in reality, which would have been nice to see.
When he eats mushrooms for the first time he communes with nature and God and discovers something beautiful in himself and the way he views consciousness and humanity in general. This moment defines the other (non-rage fueled) aspect of his stand-up, where he dropped the cynicism and righteous indignation and just became a man in love with the universe and the secrets it had to share with him. When that Bill combined with the angry Bill, he became the man we saw on his stand-up DVD’s and records, as his voice had then become fully formed and complete. This is when the documentary truly takes the form of a fascinating biography, when we see rare bits of stand-up where he rhapsodizes about the beauty of the world or whether he lets a torrent of bile splash over an audience member who keeps yelling “Freebird”. There were the moments I felt like I was getting to know Bill Hicks the man instead of Bill Hicks the memory.
The two biggest things I found glaringly missing from American are such standards in the average documentary that I almost thought I must have blacked out and missed them. 1) Women: A few of Bill’s friends and family members mention that he dated and had a few women he was obsessed with, but we never get an interview with one of them or even have someone tell a story regarding them. A man is different with the woman he loves (or is just sleeping with) than he is with his friends and family and I would have loved to seen the tender and romantic side of Bill in this. I know I could use the Internets and probably track down some information regarding the loves of Bill’s life, but I shouldn’t have had to. 2) His rise to fame: It seems like the film goes from Bill being a struggling comic to being on Letterman in the course of minutes and then to him playing packed halls in the UK moments later. We do get an anecdote about Bill going on for the first time, but he ended up going on 12 times before he died and we never get a sense of how Bill took that success and whether it was enough for him. I know he was disappointed that he was much more successful overseas than he was in the States, but it would have been nice to track his rise a little closer in order to try and see it from his perspective.
All complaints aside, it’s a nice, safe documentary that does have some incredibly fascinating outtakes from his life. His road trip to Waco, Texas to see the Branch Dividian massacre is powerful in us finally getting a glimpse of how much the bullying power of the government effected him and inspired him even more to speak out against anything resembling totalitarian rumblings. I did learn quite a few things about Bill’s life and the things he filled his days with, but I suppose I was after something that painted the picture of him internally a little better. I wanted to know him and not just know of him. I guess the one thing American does better than anything else is make you miss the man and imagine a world where we could have heard his thoughts on the Occupy movement or on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are reasons enough to spend your time on this film about an American patriot and the words he used to try and shape some minds.
The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.
Bill Hicks- Revelations
Now this is what it’s all about. I didn’t want to mention all this stuff in the body of the review since it’s all Special Features, but the bonus footage on these discs make purchasing American on Blu a must. There are three hours of extended interviews with Bill’s family and friends that fill in some pretty large gaps in Bill’s life and make for some fascinating watching. I understand a documentary on a man’s life needs to have a fairly tight focus, but some of the random asides on these discs paint Bill in a light that nothing in the film proper does. There’s also a lot of footage of his family travelling to the places Bill performed at in London and travelling to Abbey Road studios to try and get some of Bill’s music mastered. It’s a wonderful journey to watch that shows you how much love his brother, sister and mother truly had for him. If you are a fan of Bill Hicks then you owe it to yourself to check out these featurettes and rare clips, because you’ll get more of a clear picture of the man then I ever thought possible.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars