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AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY (2011) (***1/2)

I became a fan of comedian Bill Hicks when I caught one of his old HBO specials on late at night. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this angry hilarious and provocative performer before, so I went to the Internet and looked him up. Turns out he has a highly influential comedian of the early ‘90s who on the cusp of breaking into the big time in the U.S. died at the age of 32. Now British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have brought his story to film in this innovative documentary that combines archive footage and animation to bring Hicks’ story to life.

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I became a fan of comedian Bill Hicks when I caught one of his old HBO specials on late at night. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this angry hilarious and provocative performer before, so I went to the Internet and looked him up. Turns out he has a highly influential comedian of the early ‘90s who on the cusp of breaking into the big time in the U.S. died at the age of 32. Now British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have brought his story to film in this innovative documentary that combines archive footage and animation to bring Hicks’ story to life.

Bill Hicks started his career as a comedian while in high school. He and his friend Dwight Slade snuck out of their houses to audition for the new comedy club in Houston, Texas. By the time he moved to L.A. after graduating, he was already a veteran. At 19, he was playing the famed Comedy Store and was getting meetings with agents to pitch comedy scripts. But for the eager artist success wasn’t coming fast enough and the City of Angels wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be, so he returned to Houston, where he made a name for himself not only as a comedian, but as a man living on the edge.

Upon returning to Houston, he took hallucinogenic mushrooms for the first time. This from a young man who had never drank before. He was determined to throw himself into life in order to push his comedy. His increasing use of drugs and alcohol made him bolder than ever, but it also made him erratic and he lost bookings. He might still be brilliant, but it wasn’t worth it. Eventually he realized that while drugs might have made him who he was they were also destroying him in the process. So in order to get away from bad influences, he moved to New York and got sober.

Hicks was never afraid to say the unpopular thing. He openly talked about his drug use and the positives he felt it brought to his life. He would joke about every news story on drugs being negative. The news reports that a man on LSD dies after jumping off a building thinking he can fly. Hicks would say, “Why blame the LSD when the guy’s an idiot. If he thought he could fly, why didn’t he start on the ground and take off from there to see how it would go first?”

Hicks’ early influence was Woody Allen, but one can see shades of Richard Pryor and George Carlin in his work. More recent similarities would be to call him Bill Mahr crossed with Denis Leary. In fact there are several YouTube videos that show off the striking similarities between Hicks and Leary. Some might say Leary “borrowed” heavily from Hicks, but the film doesn’t address the issue at all.

While Hicks struggled to get a foothold in the States, he flourished in the U.K. In England, he’d play to sold out arenas and then come back to the U.S. to play hole in the wall comedy clubs in the middle of nowhere. It’s interesting to note that the British audiences loved his edgy political humor, but when he came back to the States he had to go back to dick jokes to get a laugh. No wonder he was so disillusioned with his home country.

The film is presented in a photo animation technique similar to the wonderful doc THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE. Intercut with Hicks’ live performances, the style makes the film lively and engaging. By the end the repetitiveness of some stills and lack of early talking heads to orient the audience weigh on the viewer. That said, the approach sets this doc apart because we actually get to see Hicks breaking out of his bedroom window to start his destiny.

This is a film for the Hicks fan and for the novice. It’s a loving and often moving tribute to a lesser known comic genius. His story is retold by his family and friends who share their point of view of why he did what he did. It gives a personal touch to the story of a talented addict who was smart enough to know when enough was enough.

Smart was the cornerstone of everything he did. Bravery was the other. You might not like everything that he has to say and he never cared that you did. He was going to say it anyway. For him no other profession in the world paid someone to speak their mind so freely. So the only honest thing to do was to just say what he thought and not what we were told to think. No matter how ugly or unpopular it was. On occasion a rude and/or ignorant crowd member would hear directly what he thought of them. Once he was told by one attendee that as a Christian he didn’t like what Hicks had said. Hicks told him to forgive him.

My only question for a film about Bill Hicks is how do you market a film about a guy who advised all people in marketing to kill themselves?

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Rick DeMott
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