Tuesday 15 June 2010


American: The Bill Hicks Story is currently touring the UK independent cinema circuit. More after the jump...

Known as an outlaw comic, Bill Hicks spent his life touring the world performing his act, whilst at the same time trying to deliver a message. He unfortunately succumbed to cancer at the early age of 32, just as his popularity was soaring; this documentary attempts to show us the man behind the message.

Narrated by those closest to him, this film utilises super 8 footage and photographs of Hicks in his youth along with video footage of his performances to tell his story. The photographs have been used to create an eerie cut and paste animation, similar to that seen in the Robert Evans documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture. It's quite a strange effect and comprises most of the first hour of the film. In the last half hour we are finally introduced to the people that have been narrating Hicks' story, and it does become more personal.

Perhaps the most consistent narrator of this story is Bill's close friend Dwight. They grew up together and shared a love of comedy and performing, and Dwight was there to see Bill at the many different stages of his short life. We see Bill's move to L.A. to find his fortune with Dwight as a screenwriter, and dissolutionment when that plan fails. Unsure like many young people of what to do next, thankfully he focused his efforts on making a living with stand-up comedy, and Bill eventually became one of the greats.

Part of the Bill Hicks appeal is that his humour has remained relevant to future generations. Further military actions in the Gulf have made sure of that. His rants about consumerism still ring true, although it's a bittersweet irony that you can only hear them now by buying one of his albums or videos.

In his early years he was seen as a clean cut comic, his baby-face features belying his attempts at vulgarity. As a purely mind-expanding exercise he had tried mushrooms with friends in his youth, but never touched alcohol. Almost inevitably though, Hicks turned to drink and drugs, and at one point his act turned into 'let's see how much we can make Bill drink up on stage'.

The drinking and debauchery that was going on with these stand-up comedians in Houston, Texas really reminds me of the Madchester scene here in the UK. The Comix Annex was their Hacienda, and Bill was in danger of becoming their Shaun Ryder. Bill found his demons through drink, then much to the surprise of his colleagues, confronted them through sobriety.

As is referenced in the title, Bill Hicks was a patriot, so it's a real shame that US audiences never took to him in the same way the UK did. He was the proud American zealot idealist who we took as one of our own. His arrival in the UK was hugely important, both in the development of his act and the obvious effect he has had on the next generation of comics.

But his country was very important to him and like all good patriots he questioned the decisions being made on his behalf. This film contains footage that Bill and friends made during the Waco siege, and his reaction to those events is an important part of the legend of his anti-authoritarianism.

I was too young to ever see him perform stand-up but, like many, I did go through a Bill Hicks phase in college, watching his videos and reading a couple of books about him. But reading a book about stand-up comedy is like watching a monkey do a backflip through a telescope; you're not getting the full effect. So it was nice to see some unfamiliar footage of Hicks used in this film, along with some of his more memorable routines.

As the story progresses and we reach his final days, it's sad to see an emaciated Bill's last night at Igby's, recorded for posterity. He was, as much as he could be, in charge of his situation, and wanted to keep performing until the end. His cancer is treated delicately here, as it obviously affected his friends greatly.

This is a painstakingly crafted documentary by directing team Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. It's nice to hear about Bill from those who were closest to him, as they're all quite candid about their lost friend. Bill's mother is somewhat of an unreliable narrator; the memories of her son have become slightly rose-tinted over time, but I'll allow her that. When you get to meet Bill's friends in the flesh, it offers more emotional resonance, and their pride about knowing Bill shines through.

It does verge towards over-sentimentality at times, and I'm still not sure that the animated photographs was the best stylistic choice, but altogether an educational look at the life of a complex guy and a lost icon. A must see for any Bill Hicks fan.


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