SXSW 2010 Review: AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY
Directors: Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
Cast: Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Kevin Booth, John Farnetti
I consider myself to be a huge Bill Hicks fan, so it was with great anticipation that I braved the cold to see AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY on the final night of SXSW. In attendance were family and close personal friends of the legendary comedian and it was very clear that they were truly supportive of this film. For those of you who don’t know, Bill Hicks is considered to be one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. Often referred to as the comedian’s comedian, Hicks’ brand of comedy is both thought-provoking and immensely funny. Prone to long political rants that border on obnoxious, Hicks isn’t for everyone. Sadly, Hicks never gained the popularity he deserved in this country, though widely considered a true patriot who was unafraid to speak out against the goings on of the time, his stand-up routines remain relevant to this day nearly 16 years after his death.
Hicks has been the subject of documentary before, but AMERICAN manages to capture a never before seen look into the personal life of the comedian. With its use of animation techniques applied to an amazing wealth of candid photographs, AMERICAN weaves a visually stunning portrait of Hicks’ life that perfectly matches the interviews given by family and close friends. I particularly enjoyed the stories illustrated with pictures while being narrated by childhood friends and family as opposed to the a great wealth of talking head interviews.
If you go into this documentary expecting an introduction to the comedic style of Hicks or to learn about his influences, you may be disappointed as this documentary takes a very personal look at what drove the man. Chronicling the comedian's early days sneaking out of the house at the tender age of 15 to perform at Houston-area comedy club, the Comedy Workshop. The film then goes on to follows Hicks as he moves to L.A. to pursue comedy and how his hard work did not pay off in the way he was expecting. It is the rare footage from these early days that is a real treat for the audience, as you can clearly see for yourself that this man was born with such great talent.
The film is very honest in its dealings with the effects of drug and alcohol use on his career. As what story about a stand-up comedian wouldn’t include a tale or two about vice after all? But Hicks managed to pull himself out of addiction and lead a life of sobriety until his death at the age of 32 of pancreatic cancer.
It was this cancer diagnosis and ultimate death sentence that would do him in and help propel a feverish race to leave behind great work. It’s almost as if Hicks knew one day this film would be made and wanted to leave behind as much performance material and photographs as he could.
AMERICAN is a fitting tribute to a life cut too short. The film really captures the spirit of Hicks and explains the origins of a comedic genius in a way befitting of such a visionary. This film manages to be both a good way to introduce Hicks to new fans as well as maintain the interest of old fans. And this is thanks in part to the diligence of the filmmakers, who evidently have a great deal of respect for their subject. When they could have gone and used stock footage of Hicks that has been seen thousands of time, they managed to unearth some surprising material that will be a treat for even the biggest of fans.