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Bill Hicks had built up a large and very loving fan base in his adopted home of the UK before his sad and early departure. One of life's many contradictions is that the country that spawned a genius also spurned him, most notably David Letterman scrapping his final (of many) appearances on the late show. Bill felt it was a mere biological coincidence (listen to his routines) that he happened to be a Texan, and this comedian and social commentator belonged to the whole world rather than just two countries on either side of the Atlantic. He belonged to the whole world in my opinion because he had such a relevant and timeless message, that fuelled every polemic routine. I've been a fan of Hicks since I was 18 years old, making many of the discoveries this guy had made at the same age. For anyone who regards themselves alive enough to cherish self awareness and to contemplate questions such as why do the good guys die and the twisted little men thrive in their place, tune into Hicks (not Fox News). Fitting given his fan base that this documentary was made with love by two British directors. As I said, I consider myself a huge fan, but this film shed light on an already big star, especially his formative years and relationships with his friends and family. 'American' is a journey, a ride, and one you'll be very glad you came along on.
I was able to see this on my local cable provider's VOD. I half
expected this to be part biography and part collection of comedy
routines. It was heavier on the biography part and not as much a
retrospective of performance bits. That was perfectly fine because this
documentary was more about the man and what drove his comedy. Also, it
appears Bill Hicks was an incredible blues guitarist from the few audio
clips played. Most of the beginning is about his family and upbringing
which sourced his early comedy. It also described his friendships and
the relationships that led him into comedy. Towards the end, more of
Bill Hick's comedy is performed, but more to emphasize the
circumstances of his life and how he managed his career.
Bill Hicks will always be one of my favorite comedians, and to see the man behind the comedy was fascinating. I have a deeper appreciation of the man and his work after seeing this film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The only downside to listening to Bill Hicks is that, once you've done
so, almost every other stand-up comedian will sound like a waste of
your time and an insult to your intelligence." - Andrew Mueller
"I thought he was the most intelligent, most liberating social and political comic I had ever heard." - John Cleese
Though he died in 1994, Bill Hicks' reputation has been growing steadily amongst comedians and comedy aficionados. Like Dean, Cobain, Marley, Morrison, Lennon etc, Hicks' death immortalised him, turned him into a hero, a microphone legend for the disillusioned youth of the 1990s.
But to his fans, Hicks was more than an iconoclast. They saw him as prophet, a truth-teller whose message of love, hope, sense and reason lurked closely behind an outer facade of anger and cynicism. Describing himself as "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes", Hicks offered a strange blend of high brow and low brow comedy. He was the Holden Caulfield of stand up, exuding a dangerous and subversive cool. Hicks may once have described humanity as "a virus with shoes", but Hicks was never cynical - just angry and perpetually disappointed, as any compassionate, decent person should be.
But it wasn't only his mixture of intellect and humour that made Hicks popular. Everyone loves an underdog, and Hicks was the ultimate showbiz underdog. With cancelled TV shows, censored television appearances and 12 years in the wilderness working in small clubs and empty bars, he struggled to catch a big break. He was hardworking and adored by fellow comedians, but at a time when American conservatism was at its strongest, homeland audiences simply failed to "get" Hicks' act. Then, just when stardom came knocking, Hicks developed pancreatic cancer. His audience didn't know it, but he was dying, his awareness of his impending death tingeing his later shows with a strange sense of melancholy. To some, Hicks' late shows are the closest stand up's ever come to a kind of spiritual comedy. And then Hicks died.
Over the years, numerous other comedians would borrow from and be influenced by Hicks. George Carlin's entire late career emulates Hicks, though Carlin substitutes apathy and bitter disenchantment for Hicks hopefulness. Lewis Black, Doug Stanhope, Jon Stewart and a bevy of other comedians (including super-hack Denis Leary) would adopt Hicks' trademarks, mannerisms and intonations to great effect. And though dead, Hicks himself would slowly begin to gain fame. VHS bootlegs and late night HBO airings would spread his name, before the internet generation, and the second Gulf War, popped him back into the limelight. Having broken free of what he called "purple veined dick joke material" and developed a more politically and socially aware philosophy over a decade earlier, the now dead Hicks began to appeal to the jaded, twenty first century audiences of Generation Youtube. It also helped that his rants against the first Gulf War and George Bush Senior translated equally well to Gulf War 2 and George Bush 2.
Hicks wasn't political in any complicated, dangerous or sophisticated way, but his scepticism about war, the arms industry, his libertarian view on drugs, his anti-corporate musings, his mocking of the stupid and/or ill-educated, bashing of presidents, love for tobacco etc, were novel on the stand up circuit at the time. Hicks' world-view we are all energy, money and status are meaningless distractions, authenticity of feeling is paramount, embrace love, not fear basically made him a hippie disguised as a punk or anarchist. And of course he bashed Rick Astley (of Rick Roll fame) long before anyone else did. Throw in a paedophilic satanic alter ego called Goat Boy, and you had one unique comedian.
Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, "American: The Bill Hicks Story" is an excellent documentary which has the hard task of making Bill's childhood years interesting, and chartering his long, lonely years on the road. The film consists of interviews with Hicks' family, associates and childhood pals, but the dialogue is sculpted such that the film plays less like a documentary and more like a moving 3 act tragedy. Coupled with this is an impressive style which revokes talking heads in favour for an animation technique which brings to life photographs of Hicks and his circle of friends. Aesthetically, I've never seen a documentary look quite like this.
The film touches upon Hicks' childhood, his strict Baptist parents, his early days in comedy clubs, his fondness for Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, the incredibly early age at which he started comedy and his transformation from clean cut comic to ticked off alcoholic. More than this, the films shows why Hicks became the comedians' comedian. He was never sullied by Hollywood success, he was never given the opportunity to sell out, his life was cut short before he got stale and his career coincided with the age of the camcorder, all factors which contributed to his mythologization.
8.9/10 Whether you find Hicks to be good, great or overrated (he was probably a bit of all three), this remains a sad but entertaining doc. Fans may want to check out "Bill Hicks: Agent Of Evolution" and "American Scream: the Bill Hicks story", two books which to a better job at delving into Hicks' life.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I approached this film half expecting a cash-in, as Bill Hicks' legacy
seems to have become lucrative for his relatives & each new release is
often more brazen than the last (e.g. 2003's Shock & Awe).
Happily, this is not the case & the film seems to be both a genuine & sincere homage to the man himself, but also a real attempt to bring something fresh & unseen to fan-boys (such as myself).
The plot is fairly simple - it starts off with his early years & ends with his death from cancer. In the process, they place each of the DVD's in context & show lots of interview clips of fellow comedians, friends & family.
So far, so predictable.
The great thing about this film though is that they have included many, many pieces of unseen footage & have strived to put him in the context of fellow comedians (all of whom are excellent - e.g. Jimmy Pineapple)
The most original contribution that the film maker's have made is to take all the 100's of photos of Bill & turned them into action-stills. A lot of the material by the man is the same, but he always had a gift of being photogenic & hence this factor symbolises the director's efforts to bring something new to the table.
By no means is this film perfect & I have heard some people say 'It's not that good', but not from anyone who's actually seen it.
One thing I can pick out is that there is nothing about his relationships or Girlfriends that were so formative to much of his comedy (e.g. his Fiancé Colleen McGarr).
There is also the fact that the film ends with the 'It's Just a Ride' scene, which is fast becoming cliché (e.g. Zeitgeist).
(Oh, and there is a bit at the end of the film which grates a little, where the screen says something to the effect of 'The Hicks family continue to live in ... & are all remarkably intelligent'. Although they may be, this seems a little bit of an affectation towards them...)
Besides this, there was too much to like about this film. It was really interesting to find out how Mr Hicks used to take mushrooms on a ranch with friends & about his final cancer-ridden days.
I hope that, when the DVD is finally released, it will include full extras of his 'Rant in E-minor'/ 'Arizona Bay' routines but, for now, I really hope that people will flock to buy this DVD. If the evidence of George W Bush is anything to go by, America (& the World) could really do with knowing more about Bill Hicks.
Here's hoping they move onto George Carlin next...
Namaste, Venakam, Salaam Alaikum, Sat Sri Akal.
Bill Hicks' comedy has been a godsend in my personal life. Being a native of the Balkan region of former Yugoslavia trying to acclimate to American society without acculturating and losing my identity, his work was invaluable. He has said the things that most people don't even acknowledge or think about.
Bill hicks was an amazing artist and human being on many levels. In particular, on a spiritual and philosophical level, he is easily the most relevant and profound comedian of all time. No other individual has managed to take the unpalatable truths of "modern society" and deliver them with the intellectual poise, sincerity and utter hilarity of Bill Hicks.
He is in our hearts and minds for all eternity, and its a joy to have known his eternal individual nature through his recordings.
May we meet again in the cosmic energy pool of eternity.
Peace, Love & Light,
"It's just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one."
- William Melvin "Bill" Hicks
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I remember seeing Bill Hicks perform on various HBO specials in the
early - mid '80's. I'd seen him a couple of times on Letterman, and
didn't think any more about him, until I had heard that he died at the
age of 32 from pancreatic cancer.
I'll admit, I was never a big fan of his. I thought that other comedians were doing somewhat similar material, and doing it better. So I watched this "documentary" to see if I could learn what I was missing or not "getting" about Hicks.
I'm not sure I was missing anything. This documentary does a fine job of telling you about his origins, and his life and the people he knew. But it does not inform you as to what he believed drove his comedy. It also doesn't discuss the inner demons that he fought or explain why, after working so many years to build a career, he would just walk away from it, just because his act was edited.
His "rants" were not the stuff of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin. His talk of drugs was not as clever as Robin Williams or Sam Kinison. So the viewer is left still not able to understand why people love his comedy.
The film is told thru stop action animation, which is clever at first, but gets old real fast. It is hard to understand who is doing the talking, because actual live faces or names are rarely flashed on the screen.
On the whole, I'm glad I saw the film, but very disappointed with not having any greater insight to the man after having viewed it.
6 out of 10
I am an enormous Bill Hicks fan. Obsessively so. I think I have all the
bootlegged concerts on my computer, and a DVD of rariety camcorder
shows as well as enough official CDs and DVDs that I have basically all
his material available in one form or another. I also have about three
books - two biographies and a book of transcripts and scripts and other
writings. So that's the background I took into this documentary.
First of all, it's a beautiful film to look at. There's the usual audio history going on in the background, but what the directors have done is taken still photographs and created pseudo-animated sequences to support the narrative. It's odd at first, but very quickly you stop even noticing that the still faces aren't moving in their animated environment. Very clever.
Secondly, where has all this new footage come from? There are several camcorder recordings which must go back as far as the early 1980s that I have never seen before. There's some bits (about his father) which I'd never heard before which were used to accompany the section on his early shows. I don't think they are quite as old as that (he looks a bit older than 16) but it's not far off. Some of these early clips also show later material in an earlier form - like the fantasy about the grotesque death of woman that broke his heart seeing him on the Tonight Show as she breathed her last.
The best thing about the film, however, is they way everything is brought back to the comedy. With enough reading, you'd already know about the drug stories and the depths of his alcohol abuse and his tragic early death from pancreatic cancer. While all of these are important parts of the story, no-one dwells on the more sensational details, but instead uses them in partnership with recordings to show how they motivated what he was doing on stage. There's clips to show him drinking excessively on stage, clips about his growing dislike of governments (including from Hicks and Kevin Booth's trip to Waco in 1993), clips contrasting his rapturous reception in the UK (the huge rock and roll entrance of the Revelations show at the Dominion theatre) adjacent to the small audiences ("staring blankly back at me like a dog that had been shown a card trick") of a backwater comedy club in the US South. I like this because it feels like the best use of the documentary medium, and gives fresh insight into a topic I (and many other fans) already know well. I mean, I can read and re-read an autobiography of his life but only in a film can I really see the effect on his work. Very much recommended, for disciples and neophytes alike.
To the people in the know, Bill Hicks is revered as one of the greats.
I must admit I wasn't all that familiar with his work before seeing
this documentary. I may have seen the odd snippet here and there, maybe
even caught part of the odd TV appearance when getting back late from
the pub, but this is the first time I've actually sat down and watched
any his work properly. You'll be pleased to know you've got a convert
right here! I can see why he was so successful over here in the UK; his
style of humour is just the kind of thing we love. But I digress,
here's a bit about the film.
We are told the story of Bill Hicks right from birth until his death, tragically young, only 32 years later. It's quite fascinating how he started out as a teenager with his friend Dwight Slade, and how they'd sneak out of the house to go and play gigs at a local comedy club. He gains some success and ends up solo when Dwight has to move away and we follow his career through alcoholism, drug abuse and back again. It's only when he cleaned up that he had his greatest successes though. Sadly he never really made it really big in his home country during his lifetime, but he left us with some truly memorable and thought-provoking comedy In my book, a genius.
Rather than just having lots of talking heads in between scenes of Bill on stage, the filmmakers used some photo-animation to illustrate certain parts of the story. This worked very well and served to keep the audience interested in the narrative. Many of his friends and family contribute to the story, which gives this version of events a lot of credence. I found I was not only intrigued by his life story, but also by his comedy. I will certainly be looking at more of the work of Bill Hicks Recommended.
My Score: 8.2/10.
IMDb Score: 7.9/10 (based on 1,716 votes at the time of going to press).
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82/100 (based on 55 reviews counted at the time of going to press).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I believe all George Carlin fans will come out of the theater after
watching this documentary feeling they also lost a son.
Comedy itself lost another true hero. Specially nowadays where nothing seems to make any sense in the world, except for the fact that all the ones who dare to understand this humongous, hypocritical world we all live in, suddenly, out of the blue, they all leave.
The documentary is somewhat superficial, nonetheless, very important, because it shows how everything started for Bill Hicks, and there is great archive footage of his early stand-ups. It also makes one feel very interested particularly in his great come back moment, after he gave up drugs and alcohol, and as far as what made him become the Bill Hicks that conquered the UK unfortunately little was said about this period in the movie.
The final scenes are Hicks' best moments. And after the late George Carlin there was nobody else who could have filled his shoes and enlightened audiences with greater political insights such as Bill.
So, a must see, but not as informative, nor as edgy as it could have been.
My vote is 8
Bill Hicks did not live an extraordinary life. Born into a middle-class
suburban home with doting parents and overachieving siblings, the teen
found his calling in furnishing extraordinary insights into the
ordinary life that he, and most other Americans in the 70s and 80s,
led. Getting his start as a teen comic in a local Texan comedy club, he
was the young upstart coming at issues from a fresh angle, the ease and
confidence with which he delivers his jokes distinguishing him as a
Dropping out of school and chasing the dream in LA, Hicks struggles with failure and fitting in with what the world expects of his humour. Falling into patterns of drug abuse and alcoholism, his comedy mirrored an outlook on life that was not mainstream. He was cynical, he was rash and he was jarring, and for all those reasons, he was an acquired taste. His anti-American routines particularly did not bode well for his career; in an industry where shock is now the norm, Hicks was ahead of his time, but that was to prove little consolation.
Eventually, ousting himself from the cycle of rejection and abuse, Hicks winds up in New York where he gets himself clean and his magical touch returns. Though he never sacrifices his right to say and joke about whatever he wishes (and highlights from various gigs are used as proof of this), in doing so he pushes back against the mainstream tide that flirts with but never embraces him. Diagnosed with cancer in his early 30s, Hicks never receives the true acceptance of the American audience that he perhaps craved, but he died in the knowledge that he stuck to certain values that never let him compromise what he believed in to merely give audiences what they wanted to hear. Many would argue that, in itself, that is a very American value.
Harlock and Thomas' film joins the growing collection of posthumous albums and features that have attempted to reclaim Hicks' image, to wonderful effect. Whether it is guilt for ignoring him whilst alive, America has finally embraced the humour of a man whose only really fame was an ocean away in the United Kingdom. As only a proud American could care enough to write the jokes about the fatherland that Hicks managed, his emotional emigration to the British Isles is as tragic personally as it was a highlight professionally.
If the documentary has a flaw, it is that Hicks wasn't around to truly finish it. This is a half-finished documentary because it was a half-finished life.
Concluding Thought: As a resident of the UK, the portrayal of Hick's success in the British Isles being down to his anti-Americanism is somewhat simplistic. The UK has a wonderful tradition of supporting comedians regardless of background or content, purely because they make them laugh.
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