Bill Hicks’ story is told through the recently released film ’American.’
When you listen to a comic as honest as Bill Hicks for so many years, you think you really know all there is to know about him. Then you realize that a man’s artistic work, while essential, is just one facet of who he really is.
In a new film released on April 8 in select theaters, now available by some cable providers on demand, “American: The Bill Hicks Story” is a new documentary about the short, but compelling life of the visionary stand-up comedian.
Pancreatic cancer cut his life and career short at age 32, so one might think that there’s not much to fill an hour and 41 minute running time. If that’s the case, then you must not be familiar with Bill.
I was first introduced to him as a teenager, listening to samples of his routines on Tool’s 1996 album “Aenima.” By then, the man had already passed on, but his words rung truer than ever. Like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin before him, his comedy wasn’t so much comedy as it was social commentary, making us laugh but forcing us to think about what was so funny.
The joke was often on greed and the American government, but also on our silent passivity towards the greater world and consciousness around us.
It was a submissiveness that Hicks himself never shared.
He was driven at a very young age to stand-up comedy, sneaking out of his parents’ house at night to perform at a comedy club in Houston. Raised in a traditional Southern Baptist home, the teenager’s early jokes were often about his parents and the Texas town he grew up in.
His comedy was funny, but clean-cut, and he stayed that way until he started drinking and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. In time, his jokes became more biting, sincere, and just plain raw.
Eventually, the excessive use of drugs and alcohol caught up with him and he thankfully sobered up, but Hicks never forgot where these experiences took him. He came back with even stronger material, and after seeing only minor success in the states, was embraced wholeheartedly when he traveled to the UK.
His in-your-face, authority-questioning rants were restricted to small clubs back home, but judging by the video footage that exists, it never slowed down his passion for comedy and only fueled his work, even when he was being heckled.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, this only sent his mind into overdrive, recording two of the greatest albums of his career and touring as much as he could before his death.
It’s a fascinating story and ripe for film, but his journey has never been told like this before. Unlike most documentaries, “American” has no narrator – it instead lets those who knew him tell the story. With truly remarkable editing, the audience barely ever sees the live footage from the interviews that provide this narration.
Using probably hundreds of photographs, many of them personal family photos, the filmmakers animate around these pictures, adding 3-D effects and splicing them together with live footage where appropriate.
The other thing that sets this documentary apart from other movies or shows I’ve watched on his life is that this one focuses on the man behind the comedy, where his ideas formulated, and why he was the man be became.
Everyone they talked to knew him intimately, so our time isn’t wasted on interviews with people who never met him but were influenced by his work. If you watch the movie, it becomes obvious what his impact on comedy was.
It doesn’t oversimplify his life or career and it doesn’t tell you how to feel about him, and that’s a rare gem in a world of dumbed-down entertainment.
With rabid anti-intellectualism and lying politicians running rampant in America in 2011, now more than ever we need more Americans like Bill Hicks, an individual to the bitter end.
Trading our unique identities for a manufactured dream, we don’t need someone to tell us what to do or guide us in our time of need. Instead, we need the encouragement to be ourselves, sometimes fiercely, in the face of opposition and oppression.
That encouragement comes through in his story. I suggest you seek out “American,” but don’t just blindly take my word for it. Bill just wouldn’t have it.