American: The Bill Hicks Story

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

Bill Hicks was a patriot, claims American, someone whose tragically foreshortened life encapsulated the ideal of freedom of speech and the need to hold authority to account. Yet this innovative documentary is screened in the New British Cinema strand of the London Film Festival and was made by two Brits, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. In death as in life, it’s the UK that gave a platform to a comedian repeatedly overlooked and censored in his homeland.

Finished less than a week ago, American received its world premiere with Hick’s mother, brother and sister in attendance. The Hicks family’s co-operation and openness throughout the project, in concert with that of the Houston comics, friends and fellow travellers on Hicks’ rollercoaster ride, is a huge part of the film’s aim to be definitive.

Like many convinced of the significance of their opinions, Hicks was an obsessive self-chronicler who continued making goofy ninja movies with his magic mushroom-imbibing friends Kevin Booth and David Johndrow, a photographer, throughout his career. The majority of the film’s soundtrack is provided by the comic and his band Marblehead Johnson. Yet what’s most immediately striking is how, from his earliest baby steps, through to performing in school with his partner Dwight Slade, right up until his penultimate gig, the repressed, marginalised Hicks always seems to have been on camera.

The shots of he and Slade pulling faces for their Texan classmates are especially memorable, as is the video of the teenage comic, all puppy fat and with the first of a succession of terrible haircuts, impersonating his ‘goober’ father at the Comedy Workshop in Houston. Also fiercely compelling is the scene from a dreadful sitcom pilot, Bulba, made after he took the decision to move to Los Angeles. In naval uniform, Bermuda shorts and twirling a rifle, the hapless Hicks delivers a succession of pratfalls that are pure and accomplished slapstick.

To a degree, these revealing early photos and Super 8 footage reflect the affluent, comfortably constricting Southern Baptist upbringing Hicks and Slade were rebelling so hard against – ‘worse than fundamentalist Christian’ exclaims his brother Steve. Hicks’ mother spends the whole film loving yet struggling to understand her ‘interesting’ youngest child, though ultimately claiming to be in awe of him.

Yet the first half of the film is also testimony to the mischievous ingenuity of the filmmakers. In truth, Harlock and Thomas only had about 800 photos with which to illustrate their story. American is distinguished by clever 3D animation of these two dimensional images via a new, unnamed process – recreating Hicks and Slade sneaking out of a bedroom window without his parents’ knowledge into Booth’s RV, waiting to take them to their debut gig at the Comedy Workshop. It seems apposite for such an explorer of consciousness like Hicks, who spent his entire life striving to learn, refine and communicate his thoughts that such a pioneering, tongue-in-cheek and initially jarring technique is used.

There’s no authoritative narrator, naturally enough, just a succession of recollections from those closest to Hicks. When he hits the road as a professional comic, never to truly leave it, the animation increasingly cedes to talking head interviews and performance footage, much of it badly shot. The latter remind you just how funny and vital he must have seemed to those who appreciated him, and how dangerous and incomprehensible he might have appeared to some audiences. The film resists the temptation to exaggerate his martyrdom, even when Hicks is laughing mirthlessly at the US government’s ‘murder’ of cult leader David Koresh and his followers at the Waco siege in Texas.

The interviews capture the esteem in which he was held. His Houston cohorts, the so-called Outlaw Comics (portrayed as so much wilder and freer than their New York and Los Angeles contemporaries), Andy Huggins, John Farneti, James "Jimmy Pineapple" Ladmirault and the rest, embrace the younger Hicks while acknowledging how far ahead of them he is. It is they who initiate the strait-laced comic into drink, releasing the fearlessness and bitterness that intensified his onstage charisma. ‘Like throwing gasoline on the fire,’ one remarks.

The rock star success he found in Britain and his infamous censoring on David Letterman’s Late Show comprise a sort of coda to the film, Hicks’ disdain for mainstream America intensifying even as he kept trying to draw it to his point of view. His diagnosis with cancer in 1993 evidently still remains shocking to those closest to him, but the film dwells on his last gigs and legacy rather than his physical decline.

Despite the film’s comprehensiveness, there is no input from the women in his life, notwithstanding a brilliant extended rant at his first girlfriend on stage. Analysis of his destructive behaviour while on drugs, which greatly reduced the number of club owners prepared to book him, is also skipped over quickly. Moreover, the hell-raising Sam Kinison is briefly glimpsed in one photo yet otherwise conspicuous by his absence. But apparently Kinison will feature on the DVD.

Any personal enmity Hicks bore towards Letterman, his disillusionment with Jay Leno and alleged plagiarism by Denis Leary are beneath a biography that succeeds in portraying him as a courageous libertarian, philosopher and troubled romantic, while extolling his massive cultural loss.

As American demonstrates, Hicks considered his legacy from an early age. So I don’t envy those who have to market this film, his unequivocal assertion that they should kill themselves still resounding.

Reviewed by: Jay Richardson
October 26, 2009

  • American: The Bill Hicks Story screens at 2pm today (October 26) at the National Film Theatre as part of the London Film Festival and gets a wider UK-wide release on March 31, 2010.

Review date: 26 Oct 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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