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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Apr. 15, 2011 | 10:47 AM

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If you’re a fan of sharp edged, incendiary political comedy, you’re likely already well acquainted with the work of Bill Hicks.  Long considered to be a “comedian’s comedian” until his sudden death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 32, Hicks at the peak of his form was the stuff of legends. What’s less well known, is that at the time of his death, Hicks had been performing stand-up for over half his life.  One of the great rewards of Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ new documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story is seeing how sharp and funny Hicks was even as a teenager, and how much his act had evolved by the time he really became known to the world.

As is evidenced by the extensive use of archival footage and photos, American was made with the full cooperation of the Hicks family.  This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse for the film.  While we’re granted looks at many photos of Hicks as a child, and Hicks as a teenager, the filmmakers often lean too heavily on these materials, some of which are of little interest except to hard core Hicks fans.  There’s an intimacy to the interviews with brother Steve Hicks and mother Mary that only family can bring, but more interviews with Hick’s contemporaries or his apparent comedy heirs would’ve given the doc a more balanced, less insular feel.

Along the way, we meet several of Bill Hicks’ co-conspirators, most of whom he met while still in high school.  Some go back even further; HIcks met his first comedy partner, Dwight Slade, when both were 8th graders in the suburbs of Houston.  Kevin Booth and David Johndrow came along a bit later, and became Hicks’ producer and photographer, respectively.  All contribute voiceover narration to the film, and seem more than happy to share the experiences they had together.  We also get to meet a few of the comedians Hicks worked with regularly when he got the thrilling news that a comedy club was opening in Houston. 

The filmmakers do an effective job of employing the wealth of material at their disposal.  Rather than attempting stilted dramatizations of pivotal scenes from Hicks’ life, they digitally cut and paste many of the Hicks family photos into animated sequences.  While the technique grows old after a while, (particularly the second time its used to create the trips Hicks and his friends take on mushrooms) it mostly helps the audience glide over the less fascinating sections of the film.  What’s missing is interview footage with Hicks himself, which could have shed light on his rapid evolution as a comic.

What never ceases to fascinate is the Hicks material itself.  Although Woody
Allen and Richard Pryor are mentioned as influences, what American does best is to remind us that Hicks always spoke with his own unique voice.  As the film’s title suggests, Hicks was an American voice, who ironically found his greatest success outside of the U.S.  Much of the best standup material featured in American is from shows Hicks did in the UK, where he was tremendously popular (The film’s directors are British). 

His death at such a young age, unfortunately has resulted in a premature canonization, which has the effect of detracting from the complexity of Hicks’ ideas.  Hicks’ material had become increasingly political at the time of his death.  Had he lived, he may have aged into another George Carlin, or his act may have dissolved into paranoid rantings, a la Lenny Bruce.  We’ll never know, but sainthood and edgy comedy rarely go hand in hand.  The film succeeds in its task of extolling Bill Hicks, but devotes too little attention to his legacy. Hicks completists will be able to fill in some blanks with American, but those who are just getting to know his work will want to dig deeper.

American: The Bill Hicks Story opens Friday, April 15th, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

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