Bill Hicks, The Hicks Family, Steve Epstein, Kevin Booth, Dwight Slade
CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
It isn't surprising that co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas are having a hard time finding a U.S. distributor for their new doc American: The Bill Hicks Story, a photo-animated feature length documentary vibrantly narrated by the 10 people who knew the legendary comic the best.
"Legendary" is such a funny word isn't it? After all, Bill Hicks was a widely respected comic from Texas who never quite acquired a popularity in America equivalent to the amount of respect he received from other comics. It was only in the U.K. that Hicks achieved what some might consider to be "rock star" status, an overwhelming popularity that allowed him to fill auditoriums rather than the small, dingy clubs that were his regular stomping grounds here in the U.S.
Hicks can be most easily associated with Lenny Bruce, another American comic whose notoriety and popularity who grew after his death in 1966 at the age of 40. Like Bruce, Hicks preferred to avoid lazy, gross-out or overly raunchy comedy in favor of a style of comedy that challenged societal values, addressed social justice issues and just plain pissed people off.
Considering the average attention span of an American audience is about 13 seconds, Hicks's style of thought-provoking comedy sometimes lost audiences and led to popularity never really achieving more than cult status in this country.
American: The Bill Hicks Story is refreshing in that the film follows the entire life of Hicks from his childhood in Texas being raised in a Southern Baptist family to his open mic debut at the age of 14 and his unpopular decision to skip college in favor of going for comedy success in Los Angeles, a decision he would abandon later after several fruitful but frustrating years in California. Hicks returned to Texas and established himself as a regional comedy kingpin before a spiraling addiction problem would lead him into rehab and off to the East Coast in an effort to leave drugs and those who reinforced his drug habit behind.
Largely utilizing archival footage, voice narration and stage appearances interwoven with cutting edge stop-motion animation techniques, American: The Bill Hicks Story is as blunt and honest about Hicks's successes and failures as were Hicks's own comedy routines that confronted organized religion, politics, rampant consumerism and, in general, an America that had seemingly turned away from a land of love and compassion.
Just as is true for many of the routines of the oft-censored Lenny Bruce, there are moments when listening to Hicks that it becomes apparent that he was a comic for the times and, at times, the comedy routines play out as a touch dated. Yet the overriding themes of a Bill Hicks stage show are the same types of themes that permeated the routines of Lenny Bruce and virtually every other social justice/activist oriented comedian throughout history. It was only after Hicks's 1994 death at the age of 32 due to pancreatic cancer that Hicks began to explode in popularity around the world, though still to a lesser degree in the United States. Hicks had gone on a recording and performing marathon in the months prior to his death, recording enough material to release both CD's and DVD's of his material that have allowed his legacy to blossom in the 15+ years since his death.
As a film, American: The Bill Hicks Story starts off slow and nearly becomes overwhelmed by the "cutting edge" animation that at times appears more amateurish than cutting edge. Apparently not possessing much in the way of family video and photo archives, despite family involvement in the film, the filmmakers abundantly use what could best be described as an animated "talking head" style of filmmaking that at times distracts from the emotional force of the narration. About 1/3 of the way through, however, the stage footage becomes more prevalent and the animation gives way to a stronger emphasis on narration and Hicks himself. It is during these segments and through the end of the film that the film truly soars and becomes a an unforgettable legacy for a comic who was often seen as before his time and before America was ready for his style of comedy. Hicks, whose routines regularly ripped apart the first Gulf war and the Waco massacre, would have likely experienced a tremendous resurgence by the time George W. Bush hit office and Americans were starting to edge out of a state of complacency.
A wildly popular film in the U.K., American: The Bill Hicks Story is currently on the film festival circuit in the United States including a current run at the Indianapolis International Film Festival from July 15-25,2010 while the filmmakers seek distribution here in the U.S.
For more information on American: The Bill Hicks Story, visit the film's website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic