For those who followed his career and voice, the death at 32 of Bill Hicks still hurts. When he played Toronto in '92, two years before he died, his message could be boiled down, for better or worse, thus:
- The Gulf War was wrong.
- The war on drugs is a fraud.
- Governments lie. The media parrots them.
- Christian fundamentalists are ignorant bullies. (This, paradoxically, from an apparent Believer, a Texas Baptist who came to hate religion.)
I can't count the many suppositional conversations I've had with Hicks fans over what Bill would have thought of Iraq, 9/11, Dubya, Obama, etc., so hardcore was his opinion on whatever he targeted with his comic laser.
The beautifully assembled doc American: The Bill Hicks Story has a logical provenance. It's the work of a couple of British filmmakers/fans, who remember how Hicks turned the Brit comedy scene upside down when he was essentially "exiled" from an America that preferred jokes about airline food.
American is not a film ideally suited for people completely unfamiliar with its subject. Concert scenes are few and truncated (including the infamous censored Letterman appearance). From the beginning, it is more about how Hicks came to be. How does a kid born in Georgia and raised in Houston in an apparently loving home come to be such an angry contrarian? It's still an open question, but the filmmakers chronicle that life with originality (photos of teenage friends are manipulated and shot from various angles to create a kind of photo-animation technique that actually transports the viewer back to the days when the young Bill would sneak out his window to play an open mike).
It was comedy itself, and not what he was saying, that initially inspired Hicks. And the legendary hard-partying Houston comedy scene, from which sprang Sam Kinison and other forces of nature, is nicely profiled (along with the drugs and booze problem Hicks acquired there).
The people who testify on Bill's behalf aren't the Jerry Seinfelds or Jay Lenos of the world -- though the filmmakers could undoubtedly have gone that route, so high is Hicks' regard throughout the comedy world. Instead we hear from his relatives and his best friends, some of them former comics, some of them still working. There's also input from childhood friend Kevin Booth, now a documentary filmmaker, who captured some key moments in Hicks' life.
There's no Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, where Hicks finds his true calling as a truth-teller, but it's clear from the movie that, whenever that happened, it probably happened in Britain, where it's noted he went "from criticizing his father to criticizing his fatherland." A gentler soul hid behind that anger, one capable of saying things like, "The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one."
American: The Bill Hicks Story is not the last word on this enduring figure in comedy, but it's certainly the most personal.