If you’ve never heard of Bill Hicks, I’m guessing you’ve heard of Muhammad Ali. That brash and forthright hero of boxing who was much more than just a sportsman; a social and political icon who through his actions, words and spirit, inspired millions. Though revered the world over and without a doubt “up there”, Ali is seldom considered by those in the know as the best lbs-for-lbs boxer ever. What’s this got to do with the late stand-up comedian Bill Hicks? Well, he too may not have been the finest his medium had to offer, but he’s certainly the most important.
In the first official albeit under-the-radar documentary feature about his life, American is a stylish and moving experience that charts Hicks’ physical and spiritual journey through the stand-up circuit, both off stage and on; his quest for success that would transform him from one of the brightest young talents in stand-up to the ranting, renegade genius whose mind-opening material went beyond comedy and changed it forever.
Made with the full cooperation of Hicks’ family and friends, novice directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have crafted an essential look into one of the most devalued and influential figures of the modern age whose unsung words of rage and wisdom still ring true over a decade on from his untimely death. He was only 32 years old.
Though frank and sometimes vicious in his observations of American life and politics, Hicks is portrayed as a hopeless romantic; the ultimate patriot who believed in a better world. His was the voice his country needed, just not the one it wanted. Such was his domestic anonymity that the bulk of his praise ultimately came from us; the British public and media who, in the early 1990’s, championed his hilarious, homespun satire and antisocial cynicism. What’s not to like about taking the piss out of Americans? Anyway, the film’s finale (an exert from one of his UK shows) is a heartfelt meditation on war and peace that defined what the man was all about. Hicks never hated his homeland, he just feared what it had become and thought it could do better.
There’s more to this documentary than Hicks’ fascinating work and ideals, though. A level of affection and humanity is found in the film’s attention to detail regarding Hicks’ personal life; from his alcoholism and regular drug use to his lone life on the road and fatal date with pancreatic cancer. Hicks was also a talented musician and poet whose memoirs and music feature throughout the film in addition to oodles of unseen archival footage and stills from his shows and youth.
Despite a slow and sometimes repetitive opening, Harlock and Thomas’ off-the-wall documentary is a fresh and thoughtful biopic; an honest and psychedelic fusion of art and artistry that lays bare the heart and soul of an idealist who, if he had lived, may have staged a revolution. Hicks told the truth about the way he saw the world and did so with such humour, such clarity and candour that it riled a lot of people. He inspired a whole lot more, though. His influence on stand-up comedy and comedy, in general, are there for all to see. Bill Hicks achieved something only terrifying artists do – he told the world; this is how we live now. American is the quintessential portrait of his life. You have to see it.
American: The Bill Hicks Story (2010), directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK by 2 Entertain and BBC Worldwide, Certificate 15.