August 10, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2011)

I’VE BEEN A FAN OF comedian Bill Hicks since I first saw him on a Rodney Dangerfield HBO special in the late ‘80s. He was different, funny, and smart – a trio of traits that stand-up comedy desperately needed at the time.

In his best work from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Hicks proudly talked and joked about his smoking, and the holier-than-thou attitude of non-smokers; his use of mind-altering (or as he saw it, mind-expanding) drugs such as mushrooms and LSD; and his insatiable thirst for challenging the status quo, the beliefs of the masses, and the lies of the government.

Yet Hicks did not achieve comedy superstardom before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32 – nor has he achieved it since then. But in recent years, more and more people are discovering Hicks and his inimitable form of comedy (despite Denis Leary’s best efforts; more on that later). And Hicks’ exposure to the mainstream increased even more this year with the full-length documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story.

Since his tragic death, comedian Bill Hicks’ legend and stature have only grown, and this unique documentary tells his story – blending live footage, home movies, interviews, and animation to fill in the details of a life cut short. A comic's comic and unflagging critic of hypocrisy and cultural emptiness, Hicks was one of a kind – a Lenny Bruce for the late 20th century.


Knowing that Hicks was lionized in England when U.S. audiences weren’t “getting him,” it’s a bit ironic that American’s Brit directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas couldn’t pull off a definitive and wholly engaging documentary about their subject.

American is a full-length feature documentary, but it feels incomplete for several reasons: Footage of Hicks at his best is shown, but not until almost the third act; there are no interviews with comedians Hicks worked with during his peak; and there is no mention of the long-standing claim by many that Denis Leary stole Hicks’ act to launch his own stand-up career.

For true fans of Bill Hicks, the early rare footage in American is great, but clips of his best performances are overly familiar…and a bit scarce. For the uninitiated, American is a passable introduction to the man who once described the human race as “a virus with shoes.” Both parties will much more rewarded watching Comedy Central’s 1995 documentary on Hicks, It’s Just a Ride; view Part 1 here.

American is essentially shot from one collective perspective: That of his family, childhood friends (and creative partners), and comedians from his early stand-up days in Houston and Austin. It comes off more like a well-produced home movie than a comprehensive, from-all-angles dissection of Hicks and his wicked brilliance.

For more on Bill Hicks:
Required listening - Relentless, Arizona Bay
Additional listening/viewing - Rant in E-Minor, Dangerous, It’s Just a Ride


Is it suitable for your kids?
American features clips of Hicks that, while brilliant and often scathing, are populated with lots of profanities and adult language. There are also frequent mentions of drug use, and some very brief nudity.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Even if she knows and loves Bill Hicks – especially if she loves him – American will be a bit of a disappointment. You’re both better off watching It’s Just a Ride or listening to the albums shown below.

One of my favorite Bill bits (a tad NSFW).

American: The Bill Hicks Story
* Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
* Stars: Bill Hicks, Kevin Booth, John Farneti, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault, Dwight Slade
* MPAA Rating: NR

Buy American: The Bill Hicks Story (DVD) at >>
Buy American: The Bill Hicks Story (Blu-ray) at >>
Rent American: The Bill Hicks Story from Netflix >>


Bob Ignizio said...

You're absolutely right in how you describe the differences in the two films, but for me seeing the family stuff and learning about Bill's early years was more of what I wanted than performance footage. I'd rather watch one of the full length concerts on video for that. Still, both docs have their pros and cons, and if you watch one you'll probably want to see the other. As for the Leary stuff, you're dead on. I can't remember if 'Just a Ride' touched on that either, though. Either way, anyone who listens to Bill's first two albums and then listens to 'No Cure For Cancer' can't help but be struck by some major similarities.

Gemma said...

I didn't know about the Leary theft rumor. I think I believe it.

StuartOhQueue said...

I don't have any of his albums. I do love Hicks so I think I'll take your advice and skip "American."


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