American: The Bill Hicks Story review

Bill Hicks left behind the legacy of an iconic comedy talent. But is American: The Bill Hicks Story the right film for the right man?

I can still remember seeing Bill Hicks for the first time, a late night Channel 4 Just For Laughs special called Relentless. I can still remember the intro music (which was, as I would later discover, Hicks’ very own take on Hendrix), the opening gags (“Comedy is the greatest job in the world. It’s not the sharing of laughter and all that horse shit… It’s the fact that I don’t have a boss. Picture that… And envy me”).  

I remember scrabbling for a VHS cassette. I remember feeling I was watching something special, huddled in front of the TV in my parents’ living room. As a fifteen, maybe sixteen-year-old, I think that in that slightly cherubic, sad-eyed, pasty, acerbic, razor-edged motormouth I saw everything that I was, merged with everything I desperately wanted to be.

I would go on to wear that poor VHS tape out. So, I bought a copy, and wore that out too. I can still recite much of it by heart. Bill Hicks changed my life, it’s that simple. 

I am not alone in this, I know. American: The Bill Hicks Story exists because I was not alone in being touched by the hand of that slightly unhinged Texan. Indeed, American is a film completely formed of fandom, like it has been moulded from pure admiration or hewn from a massive hunk of respect.

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Playing with the standard documentary format through its interesting use of animation to recreate certain scenes and environs from Bill’s journey, American realises the life of the young comic well. The magic realism created by the mix of archive film and Graham Smith’s animation technique – essentially the layering of archive photos into part photographic, part drawn, montage scenes – allows directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas to go on and vividly evoke Bill’s short life.

That Hicks could undertake the journey he did in 32 years is amazing. That American is a 100 minute movie that leaves you wanting more detail is surely a testament to a life well lived.  

For the dedicated Hicks fan, there’s little new to chew over. American lacks the rigour of Cynthia True’s textual biography American Scream, certainly in its coverage of Hicks’ illness and later life, or analysis of his complicated relationship with the American media. Instead it prefers to concentrate on Bill’s ever improving performances as he neared his death. In that and in other ways, it pulls some punches, something you would never expect from the man himself.  

The interviews which are used to tell Hicks’ story come from a small group of friends and family, largely centred on Bill’s Texan roots. This works in two ways. While giving the project an intensely personal and bitter-sweet feel – it’s hard to listen to his mother talk of her son’s failing health, for example – it prevents the film from taking a truly objective view from a wider angle. There is no critique here, and little objective social commentary. American is pure appreciation. Perhaps that’s right and proper in the context of this film, or a function of the close knit nature of the contributors.

However, for those who have studied Hicks, the It’s Just A Ride documentary, for example, the gaps are obvious. For a start there’s no Jay Leno, no David Letterman, no John Lahr, all of whom played a part (Letterman most infamously), in Hicks’ career and have spoken about the man on camera before. Both of the talk show hosts are mentioned in American, but neither are given, or would give, their own voices therein. 

This homely fell leaves a question: who is American for? Those who know Hicks’ work well will have seen most of this footage before, certainly the performance stuff, where Hicks truly shines. It’s well trodden territory, even the scratchy comedy club closed circuit footage has been available for years.

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What’s more, serious fans are unlikely to be impressed by the animation, or the re-telling of the same tales by many of the same protagonists that have featured in other Hicks bios.

On the other hand, there’s little drama for the casual viewer, and probably too much indulgent detail for those unfamiliar with why Hicks is so important. He was always best at converting people to his cause by just having them listen to him talk. In this way, American falls a little awkwardly between two stalls.

Maybe, in years to come, American will serve an audience who are looking for a historical overview of who this great comedian. For now it’s little more than another nice compendium of archive footage.

Bill Hicks was special, unique, wonderful. He was an amalgam of cultural references that very few of the Brits, like me, who loved him so had any understanding of, but that didn’t matter because they came together to form a whole, rounded performer of extraordinary power and wide-reaching influence. A comedian who could surpass all the things that made him what he was, even comedy.

To my adolescent self, Bill Hicks was bigger than America, the UK, Letterman, rock and roll – at least he was for a while. To be able to tell people I saw him perform in the flesh is something that makes me extremely proud to this day. His words still move me, still make me wanna rise up and be better. Bill could always do that, and his more upifting messages still hold an unmistakable resonance.

American evokes many of the things that people like me loved about Hicks. Certainly it sets the scene for his rabble-rousing, incendiary humour well, but ultimately it left me wanting something more to chew on than its nice visual tricks and friendly, anecdotal storytelling.

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Like some of the great musical icons – I’m talking Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain here – Bill Hicks never got the chance to screw it up for his fans, to get old, to become boring. He will always be freeze-framed in his prime, screaming “play from your fucking heart” or some other call to arms into his mic.But until someone examines his life with something close to the rigour and analytical eye that Bill could turn on the world, and himself, the cottage industry surrounding a talent taken from us too soon is perhaps destined to travel in ever decreasing circles.  

Where American should have felt like a baptism, a rebirth, giving new life to a unique voice, it feels, at least to me, a little like a last visit to the well.


2 out of 5