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American: The Bill Hicks Story

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American: The Bill Hicks Story

BBC Warner

When pancreatic cancer took the life of Bill Hicks in 1994, he was beloved by a core fan base and adored in the UK, and had an impeccable reputation among other comics. Over the next decade, as recordings of his routine were steadily released (1997’s Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor, 2002’s Love, Laughter and Truth) more and more people came under his spell. Here was a comic who not only wasn’t afraid to be fearsomely intelligent and honest, he expected his audience to be smart, curious, and skeptical about the world and time in which they lived. This generosity made his comedy—which at its best consisted of punchline-free observations about the absurdity of existence—so intimate, ribald, and very frequently confrontational, and it’s why it continues to earn new converts today.

Hicks was only 32 when he died, and he had been working standup since he was a teen. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ American: The Bill Hicks Story delivers a moving, intimate portrait of Hicks, warts and all, told through a mix of talking-head interviews and the rather ingenious use of animated photographs a la The Kid Stays in the Picture. In roughly 100 minutes, American recounts Hicks’ life: growing up the child of Southern Baptists in Houston, Texas, meeting his lifelong best friends and getting into comedy in high school, moving to Los Angeles to try to make it as a writer, coming back to Houston and hitting the standup circuit while indulging in excess booze, drugs, and the usual, getting sober, finding his comedic rudder, and fighting an unwinnable battle with cancer.

The result is a welcome celebrity-free portrait of Hicks, but it is also extremely reverential. That’s fine—Hicks remains more beloved in Britain, where he’s practically canonized (last year, he was voted the fourth greatest standup of all time—behind Billy Connolly, Richard Pryor, and Ricky Gervais—by Channel 4), so a little documentary adoration isn’t going to hurt his reputation.

What American is a little thin on at times are examples of Hicks’ humor that make him such a thorny, profound force. A few of his routines are included, but some of his signature observational tirades—against the American right, mainstream media misinformation, and Christians, for example—continue to be so fucking funny because the situation hasn’t changed since he was alive, or has become even worse. Hicks’ exploration of the first Gulf War remains a hilarious consideration of the misuse of American might that snowballs into flabbergasting hubris when heard today: The more things change, the more we find ways to make the world a more dangerous place. Luckily, there’s a bonus disc loaded with extras—30 minutes of unseen footage/rare clips from Hicks’ standup, extended interviews, Hicks’ personal audio journals, deleted/alternate scenes, featurettes, scores more—that just gives and gives and gives. As a set, they’re indispensable.

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