I was a little puzzled by the title of this film at first…American. Would Bill Hicks really want to be remembered as an American? More than anything else, America was what angered him most. An American is supposed to love and honor their country; they will fight for it and die for it; give everything to defend its values. Bill Hicks spent the majority of his comedy career criticizing the great nation. He challenged the overbearing governments, the archaic religion and the sad standards of social convention. But despite his aggressive disposition, he was fighting for America. He spent his life on the back roads of the country founded on liberty and justice, preaching his views on freedom and truth. He was unflinching when it came to these values. He lived true to his heart and perhaps suffered more than he needed to in his short 32 years, but he did it for the country he loved, the home of his friends and his family, and that is what makes him a true American.
Despite a general anonymity around most of the United States, Bill Hicks was a living legend in the comedy world. He started out at a very young age. He knew he was meant to be a comedian; to be seen and heard on a stage, and he was not mistaken. His earliest recorded sets show a fresh faced youth cracking jokes about his family with natural confidence and flair. He was young but the jokes were of the highest standard at the time. It reminded me of seeing the early footage of The Beatles as they burst onto the music scene already at the level of top acts, and, like The Beatles and their music, Bill was able to evolve his comedy over a very short span of time. He set new standards and styles for other comics to aim for.
The film builds itself around this progression well. The introductions and early parts of Bill’s life are told with interviews over top of animated photo sequences. It is effective, though not perfect as the limited availability of footage becomes apparent. However, the story soon reaches Bill’s growing career and the footage increases. The story begins to unfold in the dank, low lighting of comedy clubs as Bill’s powerful stage presence grips you. He stops riffing on his family, but continues to draw material from his home – America itself becoming the subject of his act and he is intense and unyielding. Just seeing some of the rare footage makes me wish I had a chance to witness him first hand.
To develop this stage persona (which feels as though it is very close to his real life persona) Bill lived through some hardships. It is difficult to watch as he drinks himself into an abyss. And to see it retold by his family; he was always hard on them but loved them unconditionally as they loved him. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for them to witness that raw, reckless anger of the youngest child fearlessly downing bottle after bottle on stage. But that alcohol was almost a rite of passage for Bill. To beat his alcoholism and come out the other side a stronger and more confident man than ever; it appeared to drive his faith in his philosophy and the motivation to spread it. He did however, keep the anger. It was ripe to explode at any moment. Bill was notorious for causing unsuspecting audiences to walk out on his shows. There is one scene that shows him dealing with a heckler in a small club. The passion and fury is intimidating.
The hardest part to believe is that Bill achieved what he did in just 32 years. As a fan of comedy I see the great comics of today, Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Doug Stanhope, etc. These guys are all comfortably in their 40s. True comics stay in season and ahead of the curb. There is something about the mind of a comic that keeps their wits in constant evolving. They strip themselves bare and throw their emotions out to the vultures with nothing to defend themselves with but a few punch lines and anecdotes. Bill did it better than any. We can only dream of what might have been had he had more time…
By now I suppose you can guess I’m a little bit of a Bill Hicks fan. A few years ago, during an important phase in my maturing mind, I started listening to his albums and he articulated many feelings I had growing inside me but could not express. He gave a voice to concepts of love and fear and truth and other things much too corny for this laid back movie site. But for all the wishing that he could have stayed with us longer, it is more important to realize he already left so much behind. This article is a short discussion of a solid documentary; the documentary is just a shadow of Bill’s career. His best friend – Kevin Booth – wrote a book which delves deeper. But if you wish to truly get to know Bill than there is endless footage and tapings and CDs and YouTube clips that will open your mind and enlighten your soul. Oh yeah, and it is all funny as hell.
N.B. I guess this is technically a film review so let’s go with 4/5
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