Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (ouf of 5): ***
In American: The Bill Hicks Story, British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas set out to tell the tale of the influential comedian who was underappreciated in his time and then taken from us too soon. The Texas-raised Hicks was a remarkable comic who dared tell truths in this country in a time (the 1980s and into the 90s) when a lot of Americans lived in a trance and didn't want to hear them told so bluntly--or at all. The film will probably be more of a revelation to the uninitiated than to longtime fans (such as myself), but fans of the cult comic will also find much to appreciate here.
The most frustrating thing about American is its often overdone use of stylistic techniques that distract and detract more than they illuminate. One such technique is animating photographs of Hicks that keeps one's attention but is used to the point where it almost becomes insulting to the audience. In moderation the technique is fine but subtlety is perfectly acceptable in documentary. The doc suffers from rushed editing; in one moment, Bill's brother is giving a heartfelt interview telling the story of when he first found out in a phone call that Hicks had cancer, but then the sound fades out while the camera rolls on him still speaking. The film's lack of critical eye, other than talking about the low point when his drinking had started to ruin his act, also grates a bit.
Still, Hicks' story and his vivid presence manages to push through the stylized filters.
The best thing about the film, is, yes, Bill Hicks. The audience is treated to rare footage of the cult comedian in performances dating back to the earliest part of his career, when he was a teenager in Texas, to his very last public performance before he succumbed to cancer.
American also offers up priceless home movie footage including a very moving assortment of more recent, post-sobriety movies, and interviews with his family do peel away a layer of mystery. Sometimes it's hard to be clear which interview subject is speaking, since they often don't cut back to the person at all, more inclined to use those animated photographs.
Hicks was never as popular in the US as he should've been. While the implication that he was totally obscure and unappreciated here is a bit of an exaggeration. He was undeniably a cult hero in the UK , and treated like more of a rock star and politically accepted overseas. Having to return to "Adolph's comedy bunker in Idaho" as Hicks put it, must have been a depressing proposition.
There were those who lumped Hicks, especially late in his career, in with, or even mixed up with, Sam Kinison, the shouting comic who made a career out of his ability to change from quiet to loud, going beet red in the process. Kinison himself was actually underrated as a comic, and some of Hicks' later routines do show a bit of the Kinison style, but Kinison's material didn't have nearly the depth or edge that Hicks' had.
It's hard to know how much was actually available to the filmmakers, but I would've liked to have seen more off stage, off the cuff, interviews with Hicks where we get more of a glimpse of who he really was. Ultimately, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a highly watchable documentary that serves as a useful, engaging introduction to Hicks' life and work. It's only a pity the filmmakers didn't see fit to make more like Hicks himself, straight to the cut, with no bullshit.
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