American: the Bill Hicks Story

Bolstered considerably by the original blues-rock of his band The Marbleheads and narrated by the people who knew him the most intimately, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ feature-length exploration of the life and work of Bill Hicks is as brash, crude and uncompromising as its fitting title would have you expect. An American through and through, the story of how the Georgian native became a world-famous stand-up comedian is relayed through the standard one-two talking-heads-and-archival-footage combo, but there’s a neat pop-up-book aesthetic added here where 2–D photos are cut up and reworked into animated sequences peppered throughout the film; these are combined with regular photo-montages and pan-and-zooms, familiar as the stuff of just about every documentary based on someone’s life and made from family photos.

There’s also a wealth of moving-image material, from rough 16mm stuff to sketchy amateur-video footage, and it all forms a rich tapestry, illuminating the funny parts—like how Hicks snuck out of his parents’ house when he was a teenager to sneak into (and perform at) comedy clubs downtown—and the more downbeat segments. The best of his rants for personal freedoms; against anti-intellectualism; against right-wingers (Reagan in particular); against the military-industrial complex, anti-smoking and drug laws (marijuana in particular); and against (or for) just about everything else are all on display here, interwoven with the ebbs and flows of his continual battle with alcoholism. A moving, uplifting section in which sobriety gives Hicks a clear head and alleviates some of the nastier parts of his onstage persona is particularly moving on a very simple, human level, and though the film ends on a necessarily melancholy note, it’s nicely reflective of Hicks’ worldview, which is ultimately optimistic of the potential of the human race even as it’s couched in his own brand of deeply sardonic black comedy.

American: the Bill Hicks Story is out now on DVD through Madman.

Along with the usual selection of trailers and outtakes, of which there are a great many, the special features on this disc number in the dozens. Of particular note is a moving segment in which Hicks’ family, on holiday in England, visits Abbey Road studios and has some of Hicks’ home recordings remastered. The comedian was a life-long singer-songwriter, and the tracks presented (all too briefly) here are remarkably insightful. The name the family gives to the collection is “The Lo-Fi Troubadour,” and that nicely reflects the introspective, personal nature of the tunes sampled in the featurette—they are as moving and as revealing of who Bill Hicks really was as anything in the film proper.