Bill Hicks documentary gives legendary comic subpar treatment

By Drew Hunt

Largely under-appreciated in his lifetime, comedian Bill Hicks has since become one of the most influential and admired stand-ups in history. His posthumous success led to a myriad of CD releases and live tributes. Now, filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have given him the bio treatment with their documentary “American: The Bill Hicks Story.”

Unfortunately, the film frequently resembles something of a toothless cog. Hicks fans won’t learn anything they didn’t already know, and those unfamiliar with the comic only get an introductory course in his contributions to the world of stand-up. While Harlock and Thomas succeed in giving the man his due, Hicks’ voice as a social commentator is frequently drowned by their high concept visual style.

Hicks’ humor derived from his temper. Adrift in a world he considered lazy and inept, he laced the majority of his bits are with a cynical outlook on life. One of the main queries raised by Harlock and Thomas is the source of his ire, and how much of it was the real deal and how much was an act?

Because there isn’t much archival interview footage of the comedian, the film relies on testimonials from his friends and family to piece together his life. Beginning with his aspirations at age 13 to perform stand-up, the film constructs its narrative from photographs of Hicks at various points in his life that are given the animation treatment and typical Ken Burns effect.

The film doesn’t find its footing until we hear from the man himself, and the directors are able to illustrate how closely Hicks lived his life to what he preached on stage.

By the time we get there, though, the trip has been a garish and inauthentic foray that defies Hicks’ straightforward comic style. Their intentions are good, but Harlock and Thomas frequently miss the mark when it comes to rendering their subject in a faithful manner.

Hicks more than likely would have found the treatment inauthentic. They also fail to avoid typical bio-doc cliches when they delve into Hicks’ storied drug and alcohol abuse.

Still, it’s hard not to admire their intentions. During Hicks’ peak, America was elbow-deep in Reaganism and facing much of the same in then-president George H.W. Bush. That didn’t stop him from stirring the pot and taking aim squarely at the misconceptions of freedom and how so many Americans either fail to comprehend or are simply unaware of the true meaning at the center of our national identity. Hicks was constantly questioning the status quo; he never understood why everyone else didn’t do the same.

As a consummate contrarian, Hicks was unpretentious in character and pragmatic in his reasoning. He was also side-splittingly funny. He once compared his act to Noam Chomsky telling dick jokes.

Despite his brilliance, his acerbic diatribes rendered him little more than a cult figure during his career. Since his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994 at age 32, his status has grown considerably.

Harlock and Thomas’ film is undoubtedly an attempt to contribute to Hicks’s legacy as a kind of American folk hero—a traveling satirist who preached a message few wanted to hear yet remained committed to his cause.

“American” doesn’t necessarily do this idea injustice, but it doesn’t help it either. The film is about as straightforward and complacent as documentaries get. Hicks, a stand-up comedian who transcended mere joke-telling, was anything but.