D: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas / 102m
Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Lynn Hicks, Kevin Booth, James Ladmirault, David Johndrow, John Farneti, Andy Huggins, Steve Epstein
From an early age growing up in Houston, Texas, it seems that Bill Hicks knew he wanted to be a comedian. At the age of thirteen he joined forces with his friend, Dwight Slade, and they started writing comedy material together. At fifteen, they snuck out of their homes to attend an open mic evening at the Comedy Workshop – and were a hit. But then Slade had to move away, leaving Hicks to build a career for himself.
He acquitted himself well on the comedy circuit, but early signs of alcohol abuse became more prevalent – and obvious – as Hicks used drinking in his act. While this allowed his true comic persona to show through, it lead to his addiction to cocaine, and a period in which his career virtually stalled. His initial promise, and fame, waned and it wasn’t until the late Eighties that he put his addictions behind him (though he continued to chain smoke throughout the rest of his life, even incorporating into his act). In 1990, Hicks’ career took an upturn when he appeared at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival. And later in the same year he appeared for the first time in the UK, where his brand of confrontational comedy caught on with audiences in a way that had never happened with US audiences; in short, they got him.
Hicks’ reputation increased off the back of his time in the UK, but even with such a boost he was still an acquired taste in the US. In 1993, he was scheduled to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, but his entire performance was cancelled from the show because the producers felt the content – which included references to the anti-abortion movement and religion – was unsuitable (the routine was finally aired on the show in 2009, and can be seen here). By this time, however, Hicks had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which had also spread to his liver. He kept it quiet, but began joking that each performance he gave might be his last. He died in February 1994, aged just thirty-two, but he remains one of the most popular, and influential, comedians of the last twenty-five years.
If you’ve never seen any of Bill Hicks’ stand up routines, or watched one of his live videos, then it’s difficult to understand just how good a comedian he was. He used his keen intelligence and acerbic wit to poke fun at US mainstream society and its relation to politics, religion, consumerism, and state controls. He was often vitriolic in his routines and unflaggingly dismissive of social apathy, refusing to accept that as one audience member once said, “We don’t come to comedy to think!” If you were in the audience at one of his gigs, you had to be ready to be challenged, and not in a softly, softly way either; Hicks was uncompromising.
In telling his story, from his early life growing up in Houston, through to his final gig in January 1994, American: The Bill Hicks Story picks out the highs and lows of Hicks’ life and career, and paints a portrait of a man who left behind an indelible body of work, and who was taken from us too soon. The movie benefits from the involvement of his family: mother Mary, sister Lynn, and brother Steve, all of whom speak candidly about Hicks and his various battles with addiction, as well as the effect these had on his career. Hicks also spoke about these issues in his routines (though he remained an advocate of LSD, psychedelic mushrooms and marijuana), and he did so candidly; it’s somehow reassuring to learn that his family are the same. With their honest, heartfelt contributions, the movie is able to acknowledge Hicks as a troubled individual, but also one who was able to deal with it all, and use it as a tool to inform and educate his audiences.
Co-directors Harlock and Thomas have done a great job in assembling the various interviews that pepper the movie and give it a great deal of balance throughout. There are dozens of clips of Hicks doing what he did best, and they’ve been chosen with obvious care – one montage of Hicks accepting or having a drink onstage shows just how bad his addiction was. There’s plenty of archival footage of Hicks growing up, and the makers have adopted a graphic animated style to the material that keeps things interesting away from Hicks’ routines, and often proves inventive. Using cut-outs and graphic overlays, the movie is visually engaging and compelling, and although some viewers may have trouble keeping up with who’s providing the voice over at any given time, it doesn’t detract from the overall effectiveness of the material.
Hicks, like Lenny Bruce before him, was unafraid to challenge the establishment, and his disillusion and anger towards the powers that be are given full expression, and allow the viewer to see the passion Hicks displayed on stage. Whether or not the movie is entirely successful in showing the man behind the comedian is open for debate, as Hicks’ private life is barely touched upon unless it involves his family (for example there’s no mention of a girlfriend, or indeed, any kind of significant other), or the friends he made on the comedy circuit in Texas. But the movie’s focus is clearly on Hicks the comedian rather than Hicks the private individual, and as such, works supremely well at providing a fitting eulogy for a man who once said, “Do I have a message? Yes, I do. Here’s my message: as scary as the world is – and it is – it is merely a ride…”
Rating: 8/10 – an enjoyable, affectionate look back over the life of one of America’s finest – if not fully appreciated – comedians, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a worthy endorsement of Hicks’ life and career; by turns funny, sad, poignant and moving, but above all funny, the movie is a celebration that is both imaginative and sincere.