American: The Bill Hicks Story – Review

For a part of the world often reviled as backwards, Texas has the habit of producing geniuses. Howard Hughes, Terrence Malick, Steve Martin (at least the early years) and Bill Hicks all hail from the Lone Star state.

It was said in the 1980s and 90s that alternative comedy was the new rock n’ roll. It gained a new credibility and excitement with comedians pushing the boundaries and limits of decency and taste.

But one man, who died at the age of 32, towered above the rest with his righteous and furious critiques of American culture. Bill Hicks was not anti-American he merely deconstructed the American Dream and held it up to the light to expose the sham that it is. Indeed, Hicks himself once described his act as, “Chomsky with dick jokes”.

American: The Bill Hicks Story, directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, is in essence the portrait of an artist as a young man – for that’s all he ever would become having contracted pancreatic cancer just as his career was truly taking off. Three years in the making, it’s less a warts-and-all documentary and more homage told in lively photo-animation with interviews and live footage mixed together. The effect is certainly different and enlivens the doc with much verve – certainly matching the tireless energy of its central figure.

Curiously Hicks’s personality is never investigated in any depth. Harlock and Thomas are too busy heaping praise as if the documentary is nothing more than a grand eulogy. What made him tick? What were his demons? It’s never really explored in a satisfactory manner. His mother cryptically mentions, “Bill was interesting”. Yes, Bill Hicks was interesting, but what else was he?

There are references to his impatience, drug taking and alcohol abuse, but the main focus centres on the development of him as a comedy god. Hicks was inspired by the likes of Woody Allen and started playing clubs in Houston at the age of fifteen. From there he never stopped touring and developing his act.

As a comedian he thrived on creating a counter-culture spokesperson that mixed vulgarity with hilarious insights into such themes as advertising, the media, war and America’s military complex. He was a truth seeker exposing the absurdity of societies and puncturing holes in ideas of freedom and liberty. As he says in his act, “you’re free to do what we tell you,” or referring to his country as: “The United States of Advertising”. It’s pointed, angry stuff.

Hicks died just as he felt he was getting somewhere. In the UK he was a mythic figure and it can be said the UK’s response to his material cemented his subsequent reputation and enhanced it around the world for posterity. In England Hicks was selling out theatres, not comedy clubs.

The third act is moving as friend’s recall the shock at his terminal cancer diagnosis and Hick’s brave stance against death. His last ever performance is emotional stuff too as he continues his “can you believe what goes on?’ schtick with knowing irony (the audience is not aware they are attending the final show even though he openly admits he’ll never play again). He’s been dead sixteen years but his reputation continues to grow and grow. Despite the anger and venom one suspects Hicks was fuelled not by hate, but love. He was an idealist. The world amazed him in all its fucked up glory. Remember, it’s just a ride.

Rating: ★★★½☆

UK Release: 14th May
USA Release: TBC
Australia Release: TBC