by gavin dahl
When Bill Hicks found out he was dying of pancreatic cancer in 1993, his stand-up comedy material had never been more focused. The powerful new documentary about who the man really was, American: The Bill Hicks Story presents some of his hardest-hitting quotes on opposition to the military, drug prohibition, advertising and money. Even better, the film offers never-before-seen personal moments from his childhood to his teens to his psychedelic trips to sold-out auditoriums in England.
Considering Hicks had so much to say, and his following has only grown since his death, it was not an easy task for directors Paul Thomas and Steve Harlock to eulogize him without leaving things out. But other than going a little easy on Bush and Reagan and scrubbing some of Hicks' raunchiest material, the snippets of his stand-up are quite representative of his work. He was shocking, but beyond shock value. He was proud to be an American, but upset about the direction the country was going.
What really makes the film successful is the method the directors employed, working with the Hicks family to assemble hundreds of photos and recording over 100 hours of new interviews with 10 key players in the edgy comedian's life. Harlock and Thomas rarely show the narrators, dodging formal documentary conventions by pairing audio with cropped photos set in motion in three dimensions, creating an unusual form of animation.
The result is a package of exciting virtual re-enactments of him sneaking out of his house to go to the Comedy Workshop as a teen, visiting other dimensions while tripping on magic mushrooms and even hanging out in his first apartment in Los Angeles. The only drawback to the photo-animation technique is losing track of which voice belongs to which narrator. A second viewing would be necessary to identify which voices belongs to his teenage partners in crime Dwight Slade and Kevin Booth, photographer David Johndrow, fellow comedians and members of his family.
Recounting his early influences like Woody Allen and his development into one of the Texas Outlaw comics, as well as his battle with alcoholism and his relentless drive to be bold, the filmmakers offer an intimate look into his life behind-the-scenes. By the end, you feel like you know him, like you're on a first-name basis with the guy.
Bill was way faster than his audiences, and most fans agree he was too good to make it into the American mainstream. Appearing on Letterman more than a dozen times, and shooting a few HBO specials, he still performed what he called "flying saucer tours."
"Like UFOs," he would tell audiences, "I too have been appearing in small Southern towns in front of handfuls of hillbillies."
Bill railed against anti-intellectualism, promising, "This is called logic. It won't hurtcha, it will set you free." He called the mainstream media a propaganda machine, insisting, "Don't you ever forget, you're free to do what we tell you." He warned of the viciousness of profit, shouting, "It's all about money, not freedom, okay? Try going somewhere without money." He worried about future generations, asking "When did mediocrity and banality become good for the children?"
But it wasn't until he broke out in Britain that Bill became fully confident. And that success is part of what led the directors to the project. After the screening they said they strived to help reserve him his "rightful spot on the cultural timeline." Bill's brother Steve said during the Q&A that the family is in possession of 150 hours of unreleased video and 200 hours of unreleased audio. Look for more on Hicks in the months to come.
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