For comedy fans, the untimely death of Bill Hicks was tragic on a human level, yes, but also on a selfish one: How many hours of brilliant material were we robbed of? Here is a comic who seemed to be just getting going, having honed his uniquely bristling satiric voice over years of nightclub work (and hard living), and then he was gone, dead of pancreatic cancer at a mere 32 years old. In the years since, Hicks has become one of the most vaunted and idolized figures in the world of stand-up comedy. And now there is a new documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, which looks at his brief life and legacy with skill and insight.
Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas tell Hicks's story entirely through the memories of those who were close to him--his family, his friends, his fellow comics. There is no narration, and precious few talking head shots; most of the interviews are voice-over accompaniment to a kind of cut-and-paste animation photomontage, in which photographs are brought to life as illustration (you've seen similar techniques in documentaries like The Kid Stays in the Picture). They trace his childhood, moving from place to place in a strict, religious family (of the narrative that Bill was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, his brother jokes, "We were raised Southern Baptist, and that's much worse"), but fascinated from a very young age by the business of show and the world of comedy. He and friend Dwight Slade begin performing as a comedy team, first at school and then at a Houston nightclub; when Slade moves away, Hicks goes it alone, and we're treated to video of the impossibly young-looking teenager on stage.
He began as a very different kind of performer--"never swore," Slade says. "He was the clean-cut comic." After a brief move to Los Angeles, Hicks returned to Texas and began to develop his comic voice--and his vices, using mind-altering drugs and drink to shed his inhibitions and open up his mind. And then, suddenly, there it is: a miraculous clip of the Hicks we know (or closer to it, anyway), a cauldron of barely-contained rage, spewing bile that is as hard and mean as it is riotously funny.
What made Hicks genuinely dangerous, an honest-to-God (pardon the cliché) edgy comic, was his seeming disinterest in being a light entertainer, a fluff purveyor of tired bits and well-worn comic tropes. He wanted to provoke his audiences, to make them think, to make them question, to make them mad--but to do so in a satirical style that never (okay, seldom) sacrificed laughs. In that way, he was perhaps the only modern-era comic who honestly earned comparison to Lenny Bruce; he held up a mirror to his audience, and wasn't afraid to make them uncomfortable to make a point.
If it held no other value, American would be worth seeing for its consideration of his creative journey--for how keenly it understands and articulates what it took to get him there, how he could have gone wrong ("Club owners were concerned about how erratic the shows would be"), and how he didn't. The people who knew him, his friends and colleagues, prove the best voices for understanding why he was important: what he did, how he did it, why it was different, and why he had such difficulty with his audiences.
Harlock and Thomas wisely select his most timeless material, bits covering topics that are still relevant: creationism, anti-intellectualism, gays in the military. The best sequences, not surprisingly, are the performances; they're still raw and cagey and alive. The animated photo technique mostly works, though a few of the visual choices are a little trite (like the point-of-view shot stumbling down a sketchy alley during his drunken period). If there's a problem with the device, it's that it's used so heavily that we don't get much chance to connect the somewhat disembodied voices with the people who are originating them; it's one thing to keep the subject off-screen when there's only one narrator (as in The Kid Stays in the Picture); American requires a bit more detective work out of the viewer than it should.
The disc sports an MPEG-4 AVC 1080i transfer that is less than dazzling, though that's mostly due to its reliance (particularly in the second half) on analog archival materials. But the cut-out animation sequences are clean and good-looking, while saturation is frequently strong. It's not an HD showcase disc, but it's not bad.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a good one, with Bill's bits loud and clear even on the oldest, multi-generational VHS dub. Interview narration is crisp as well, and music cues are well-dispersed throughout the soundstage.
English subtitles are also available.
BBC Films' Blu-ray release is fully loaded, with extras spread across two discs. Disc one, in addition to the feature, includes the film's Extended Interviews Part 1 (58:57). Though the interview clips run considerable longer than in the film, they are still well-edited--with B-roll, even--and roughly organized into overall topics (in this first part, Hicks's early years). The disc also includes two fine featurettes: "Austin Panel at SXSW" (10:21), with co-director Harlock leading a panel discussion with several of the film's interview subjects, and "Dominion Tour" (7:44), with the makers of Hicks's "Revelations" special (along with his mother) interviewed at the Dominion Theatre in London, discussing how the special came to be.
The bulk of the bonus features are found on the second disc. First up is Extended Interviews Part 2 (2:01:19), picking up with his first tastes of local fame and moving through to the end of his life. Though these interviews amount to a lot of material (three hours total), they function as a kind of alternate version of the movie, testimony over technique, and are a commendable addition. The rest of the featurettes follow, beginning with the grammatically mistitled "Festivals in UK & USA with the Hicks" (14:56), a tightly-edited look at the film's festival tour, with the Hicks family present throughout. "Hicks at Abbey Road Studio" (4:29) shows the family at the famous studio, remastering Bill's home music recordings; "Kevin Shoots His Film in L.A." (3:52) takes a brief look at Bill's friend Kevin Booth and the documentary he's been working on about the failed American drug war (this featurette's relation to the material at hand is tangential, to say the least). The featurettes also travel to a "15th Anniversary Tribute" (8:02) in London, interview friends Dwight Slade and Lames Ladmirault's for their thoughts on comedy in "Comedy School" (19:01), follow Slade to England in "Dwight in London" (5:46), take a closer look (via interviews and home movies) at the "Making of Arizona Bay" (7:23), and visit "The Ranch" (7:51) in Fredricksburg, Texas, where Hicks, Booth, and their gang would escape, relax, and get high.
Seven Deleted Scenes, four Early Scenes, and three Alternative Scenes (with no "Play All" option, natch)--all brief--follow, and then comes the treasure trove: 18 Rare Clips of the comic in performances throughout his career. The picture and audio quality is expectedly sketchy (these are home clips, all analog), but the material is remarkable--even at the very beginning, when he was still finding his voice. The section also includes an old home movie of Bill & Dwight staging a silent comedy bit, Bill "reporting" from outside the Branch Davidian compound, and a fake trailer for a young Hicks in Ninja Bachelor Party.
Next up are three of "Bill's Audio Journal Clips" heard in the film--one of him in Los Angeles in 1981, one leaving New York in 1992, one of a telephone interview by Nick Doody in 1992. The film's Trailer (1:47) closes out the copious bonus features.
It must be noted that American: The Bill Hicks Story is pretty conventional from a structural standpoint; it doesn't look to replicate its subject's innovativeness. But the content is, by a good stretch, intriguing enough to keep us engaged. This is especially true in the closing sections, after he received his diagnosis, but told few people and kept working (now with even more purpose). There's a power to those performances, a sense of wanting to say what he could while he could, and the filmmakers wisely let him speak mostly for himself. That's the smart play. His words continue to inspire and provoke, and American is an affecting and compelling tribute.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.