Even for the faithful to whom Bill Hicks is quite familiar, American may invite more questions than it answers.
American: The Bill Hicks StoryDistributor: BBC
Cast: Bill Hicks
Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
Studio: BBC Warner
Release date: 2011-06-07
Coming so soon after last fall’s release of Bill Hicks: The Ultimate Collection, getting a full-blown Bill Hicks documentary may seem almost too good to be true. The fact of the matter is that American: The Bill Hicks Story has been around for a while, and is only now being released stateside. Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, this film was actually released in late 2009 in the UK, which is not as surprising as it may sound, considering that Hicks was far more popular there than in his home country before he died.
For the growing legion of Hicks fans who can’t get enough, there is much to recommend in this new feature. For those who haven't seen any of his performances, this may not be the most appropriate or enlightening introduction. Certainly this documentary goes to great lengths to explain and discuss Hicks, but without the context of his material, it may not make sense why it’s important to watch a full documentary (plus an additional five hours of bonus material) about him. It is, and you should -- but you may first want to check out some of his readily available, and essential, performances.
Even for the faithful to whom Hicks is quite familiar, American may invite more questions than it answers. The filmmakers, presumably in an attempt to get the “true” story of the “real” Bill Hicks, conduct extensive interviews with his family (his mother and his older brother and sister) and several of his closest friends, some of whom were/are comedians in Houston. On one hand this is an effective decision, since these intimate sources most definitely have personal, often touching stories to relate. On the other hand, a great deal of time is spent on these recollections which, even when revolving around Hicks, call attention to the peripheral subjects doing the speaking.
After a while, one can’t help wondering if no effort was made to contact established comedians and critics, or if those individuals were unwilling to participate. The latter scenario seems unlikely, since so many comedians are already on record, and their approbation of Hicks is pretty well universal.
Many, including myself, are of the opinion that Hicks is far and away the best --and most important-- comedian of his generation. Having done, and enjoyed, the homework to understand and appraise his evolution from teenage phenom to (very) angry young man and finally to the unadulterated genius he became, the evidence is already there. The existing footage, as well as the sparse but intense accolades from fellow artists, makes the case quite compellingly.
While welcome, it’s not clear how necessary it is to have family and friends reminiscing about how special Bill was or how he influenced their lives. On the other hand, it could be argued that it’s equally questionable how useful more encomiums from famous and influential comics would be.
Here’s the deal: even after watching (and enjoying) every second of this exhaustive feature, I found that there are still many issues unresolved. Indeed, there are quite a few matters that are never addressed at all. With a talent like Hicks, whose life was not without controversy, this seems more than a little negligent. Worse, it tends to confirm that the ultimate endeavor here was more about beatification than explication.
For example, it's well documented that once Hicks began drinking to excess (and abusing drugs), his moods -- and his act -- became increasingly dark and a great deal of anger obviously festered inside him. Understanding that he was raised in a religious household, and initially made the (mostly loving) mockery of his parents a cornerstone of his routines, one might suspect there was some resentment or confusion. However, all the interviews with his mother would lead one to believe that there was a minimum of tension and turmoil in the Hicks’ household.
This unwillingness to dig under stones of deeply personal family history is understandable, even respectable. However, any documentary that declares itself “The Bill Hicks Story” does everyone a disservice by not finding -- and presenting -- some countervailing intelligence.
In an era when we have ridiculous reality TV shows wallowing in -- and profiting from -- unfortunate Americans’ problems, I’m not remotely suggesting that this documentary should have plumbed deeper into whatever uncomfortable depths did or do exist. In fact, there's absolutely no question that Hicks loved his parents and got along with them remarkably well: the fact that he chose to be with them in the months before his death says all that needs to be said.
Still, in the context of the hours (!) of conversation, whatever issues preceded and exploded during his extended period of excess are mostly tip-toed around. (That Denis Leary shoehorned entire chunks of Hicks’ act into an HBO special called No Cure For Cancer, which promptly made him wealthy, while Hicks died…of cancer, is equal parts ironic and intolerable. Leary is mentioned exactly zero times in the course of these five-plus hours, which is odd. For now, any further details or insights must remain between Leary’s soul, the devil and the deep blue sea.)
That said, it's often amusing, and frequently wonderful, to see and hear how much love Hicks attracted. His family adores and respects what he accomplished and the man he became; his friends remain in awe of him, and one gets the sense that he was a special person in many senses of the word. James Ladmirault aka “Jimmy Pineapple” (who gets name-checked in Hicks’ Sane Man DVD) admits that he may not have achieved sobriety without Hicks' assistance and encouragement.
Childhood friend, and working comedian, Dwight Slade, with whom Hicks was inseparable through high school, has several hilarious and heartwarming stories. One in particular: on their football team the two boys wore numbers 9 and 20; this became their secret code during phone discussions. When Slade learned Bill died at 11:20 (in Texas), he realized he had been onstage, the night before, at 9:20, Canadian time.
Of course, the impressive trajectory of Hicks’ career is abundantly and competently covered. From appearing at local nightclubs while still a minor to forgoing college and driving directly to Los Angeles, it's abundantly -- and sometimes painfully -- obvious how difficult it was even for a comedian with his ability to break through. In fact, he spent most of the next decade not breaking through.
Early support from Jay Leno landed him on Letterman’s show, where he would return many times (infamously just before his death, where his act was censored, something Hicks never got over and Letterman claims to have always regretted). His dangerous dance with the drugs and booze can and should serve as a cautionary tale; his dedication to sobriety and the subsequent productivity he enjoyed are genuinely inspirational.
The last years of his life remain difficult to reconcile. Finally finding rock star-level fame in the UK (as well as Canada), his confidence was uncontainable. He was also playing his guitar, and the documentary spends time illustrating how important making music remained for him, even when he got sick. After his diagnosis, Hicks shared the news with as few people as possible and kept working as much as he was able. As much as he always hated traveling, he continued to do it because he had to. He also maintained, understandably, that when he was on stage everything else went away.
The recordings made during these last shows represent some of his best work (see Arizona and Rant in E Minor). It's still excruciating to experience the cognitive dissonance of this footage: pale and entirely too thin, Hicks is still full of passion and it’s as though he can barely keep up with his mind. Clearly he was in a zone, eager to express these thoughts, share that energy, and do his best to get it all out. A few months later he was dead, at 32.
It's easy to recommend American because anyone who makes the Hicks connection is going to want everything they can get their hands on. This documentary does not tell the whole story, however, but it doesn't need to. It provides a valuable service by collecting the recollections and impressions of the people who knew Hicks best.
In terms of the critical insight (and/or input) missing here, that seems a minor quibble: if one thing is certain it’s that Hicks is only getting more popular with each passing year, so there will be many more features in our future. This is a good thing, since it’s unlikely we will ever stop evaluating, mourning and celebrating the man and his work.