Review: American: The Bill Hicks Story
PLOT: A documentary examining the life of Bill Hicks; widely considered one of the greatest stand-up comics of all-time, who tragically died from cancer at age thirty-two.
REVIEW: Bill Hicks was a genius. One of the greatest pop-culture tragedies of the last twenty years was the fact that Hicks, just as people started to catch on to his unique, politically relevant humor, died before ever achieving the fame he deserved. Had he lived, there’s no doubt in my mind that we would have been a mega-star, and his brand of humor would play well with a lot of the other politically conscious comedians that now dominate, including Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. One could easily imagine a (somewhat toned-down) Hicks sitting in the anchor chair for something like THE DAILY SHOW, or being the center of a brilliant, subversive film or HBO series.
Sadly, it was not to be, but no one can argue that he made his mark, and when a lot of his contemporaries are long gone, Hicks will be remembered. AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY, is an through look at his life and career, from the perspective of his family and close friends. Rather than use your typical “talking head approach”, this tells the story through audio interviews, an massive amount of archival footage, candid family photos, and animation.
Pretty much everything you’d hope the documentary would touch on is included here. All the bases (with one exception) are covered. It starts off with Hicks in high-school, and performing his first stand-up gigs in Houston, before his first, unsuccessful trip to L.A. From there, we chart his return to Houston, as he begins to dominate the local comedy scene, while beginning a decent into alcoholism.
From there, the film charts his recovery from addiction, and the way his new-found sobriety led to his dedication to a higher-minded, politically conscious style of comedy. The Gulf War, and particularly the siege at Waco, Texas, inspires some of his best material, and he manages to hit the big time in Europe while remaining obscure back home. We chart his controversial brush with David Letterman, which leads to Hicks’ taped act being dropped from an episode of the show- but by then, he has a bigger foe then Letterman, as he’s diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer. Rather than lay down and die, Hicks uses the limited time he has left to put as much work as he possibly can out there, and we see footage from his final, triumphant shows. It’s powerful, moving stuff, and something that I’m sure will turn a lot of people on to his subversive, brilliant comedy.
My only problem with the film is that it completely omits one of the most controversial chapters of his career: the feud with Dennis Leary, who many say stole Hicks’ act. The fact that this isn’t broached is a major oversight, but I suppose the filmmakers were more interested in celebrating Hicks, then condemning Leary. I suppose this is laudable, but it would have been an interesting issue to examine, especially if Leary himself would be willing to go on record (although I understand it remains a VERY testy issue with Leary, who’s steadfastly denied ever stealing Hicks act).
This oversight aside, AMERICAN is still a very entertaining examination of Hicks’ life and legacy. For my money, Hicks was a true original, and one of the great comedic talents of the last quarter-century. His death was a tragedy, because, as this film makes painfully clear, he was just getting started and had so much more to give.