Music lovers often discuss in hushed tones the moment they discovered Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who died young, was unappreciated in his time and left behind only three albums that are now almost universally declared to be masterpieces. American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks somewhat shares a similar legacy as he was under appreciated in his beloved-home country (he was far more popular internationally, especially in England), he died young and yet he is now regarded as one of the greatest stand-up comedian who ever lived. Hicks’s distinctively confrontational style allowed him to channel his intense anger over the hypocrisy and injustices of the world into razor-sharp routines that were both frightening and extremely funny.
By means of introducing Hicks, the biographical documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story begins with one of his routines critiquing media objectivity in the way the media were reporting on the ‘war on drugs’. We then see a ferocious clip of Hicks tearing a heckler to pieces and then some of his anti-religious material. For the uninitiated these clips establishes Hicks as a comedian who was fuelled by an intense yet informed and articulate anger. Hicks was never just looking to shock (although he did plenty of that) but he was genuinely alarmed by what he saw around him with some of his main targets including organised religion, military aggression, consumerism and the culture of fear and mediocrity that is used to keep the population subdued. A documentary about Hicks could have easily been titled Patriot or Prophet.
Going from his teen years in Houston, Texas USA, as a clean-cut, middleclass, suburban rebel right up to his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32, American: The Bill Hicks Story depicts the formative moments in Hicks’s career including his notorious use of drugs and alcohol through to him visiting the Waco Siege to see for himself what was really happening. Noticeably absent is any examination of Hicks’s celebration of pornography and his generally troubling relationship with women. We do see one of his more savage routines where he fantasies about an ex-girlfriend dying in a trailer park while watching him on television but apart from a fleeting mention, the film does shy away from exploring that aspect of Hick’s life.
British directors and producers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have assembled this documentary through extensive interviews with the people who knew Hicks best, including childhood friends and his mother, to produce the film’s narration. The result is an affectionate and extremely personal account of Hicks’s life and work that is genuine and ‘truthful’ in its openly subjective approach. The visual component of the film consists largely of cut-up photomontages and empty shots of the various locations that were significant to Hicks. Both techniques were also used extensively in Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen’s excellent documentary about the legendary playboy producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture. The difference is that while the Evans story was eventually about a fall from grace, the Hicks story is eventually about a tragic loss of a great social commentator before his time. In American: The Bill Hicks Story those shots of the empty family home and the empty comedy clubs have far more sadness as the reality that Hicks is missing is extremely evident.
The best way to really understand who Hicks was is still to listen to his four essential albums Dangerous (1990), Relentless (1992), Arizona Bay (1997) and Rant in E-Minor (1997). The second best way is to see this film. In terms of Hicks’s routines it doesn’t show very much that most fans would have not already seen but it does present the occasional gem such as one of his early stand-up outings while still a teenager. Watching this early footage of Hicks is fascinating as his style of delivery was already mostly established, except he is making jokes about schoolyard politics rather than ridiculing pro-lifers, attacking military arrogance or deriding anti-intellectualism. We also see how much his friends and his family miss him, getting a glimpse at his softer side. The testimonies from his mother are especially moving as she comes across as somebody who was always incredibly supportive, proud and in awe of her son. Fortunately the film ends with one of Hicks’s rare messages of hope that the human race may finally evolve, right after a bittersweet comment from one of his friends to say that to die just when everything was finally coming together was ‘very Bill’.