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American: The Bill Hicks Story

Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 06/03/11 22:17:17

"Dangerous man is fitted for a rainbow"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

I sat down with “American: The Bill Hicks Story” holding only a slight awareness of the comedian, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32. I never found the man funny, but retained a curiosity about the “bad boy” comedian who commands such reverence in stand-up comedy circles, anticipating an extraordinary education from this documentary. Unfortunately, “American” doesn’t impart much in the way of hard facts about Hicks, preferring an affectionate route of celebration, blindly fawning over this mystery man in a way that would likely make Hicks himself retch.

Directed by Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock, “American” is a BBC production that eschews a traditional documentary presentation. Playing into genre trends, the filmmakers collect images and footage of Hicks, manufacturing a cartoon narrative with the multimedia, forgoing talking heads to broadly animate faces and places as a way of creating life from static recollections and evidence. The effect is quite tiring to watch, while also requiring a monumental concentration on voice ownership, with friends and family speeding by in this patchwork quilt of a movie. The intention is to reconstruct the anticipation and flurry of Hicks’s career, jolting the frame with movement that brings the subject back to life. It’s a determined directorial rush, but creates a plastic representation of the man, losing his essential humanity.

“American” spans the Hicks experience, working from his early itch of comedy (with partner Dwight Slade) to the decline of his health, tracking the ups and downs of this complicated man as he reached for his performance dreams. The footage isn’t terribly revealing (little is shown of Hicks in a passive domesticated state), but Thomas and Harlock do communicate a purity of focus within Hicks as he struggled with chemical dependency, depression, and the development of his venomous act, working the Texas stand-up circuit with a fury that often rattled audiences and romanced his fellow comics. Hicks was intelligent and passionate about philosophical ideas, morphing from a content joke teller to a rabid stage prophet of sorts, sucking down cigarettes as he scolded his audience, berating paying customers for their apathetic attitudes toward the government and big media. Hicks crowned himself king of the world, with his act a series of lacerating diatribes on the state of humanity.

How Hicks shaped and defined his comedy is never explored in full. Instead, “American” rolls over and expects the viewer to scratch its belly, serving up extended performance clips and highly rehearsed memories from friends and family that fail to challenge an prickly man who treasured the thrill of confrontation. The filmmakers toss softballs left and right here, spending more energy worshipping Hicks and his stage work, and not enough on his passions and private thoughts. Granted, without the comedian’s participation, it’s difficult to manufacture true insight. However, “American” doesn’t make a substantial investigative effort, skipping incredible questions of behavior, contradictions, backstage temper, and career complications -- Denis Leary isn’t brought up once, despite playing a major role in why Hicks is remembered today.

“American” looks to cradle Bill Hicks, not confront him, which seems antithetical to his work as a comedian and overall hypersensitive performer. The man wanted his audience to defy authority and dispute so-called facts, urging the sleeping to wake up and question everything. The documentary on his life takes special care not to disturb golden memories, submitting a colorless bouquet of achievements, not the fascinating textures of an idiosyncratic life cut down in its prime.

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