“Good evening, my name is Bill Hicks. I’ve been on the road now doing comedy 12 years, so, uh, bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plow through this shit one more time. … I’m kinda tired of traveling, kinda tired of doing comedy, kinda tired of staring out at your blank faces looking back at me, wanting me to fill your empty lives with humor you couldn’t possibly think of yourselves”.
Bill Hicks may not be the most recognisable name on the stand-up comedy circuit, but when the Texas-born comedian died of pancreatic cancer the age of 32 in 1994, he left behind him an unfinished career and a string of baffled rednecks in the Deep South. Decrying everything from modern music, to religion and the conservative elements of politics – while simultaneously praising the joys of smoking and taking drugs – Hicks usually held nothing back. It wasn’t until late in his career that he was ‘discovered’, particularly in the UK, and it is only since his untimely death that legions of fans have sprung up all over the world as they discover his comedy for the first time. Compared with the earlier Lenny Bruce, and sometimes described as “Chomsky with dick jokes”, his prematurely-shortened career continues to be influential to this day.
Hicks’ life was previously chronicled in It’s Just a Ride: A Tribute to Bill Hicks (available on DVD as part of the Totally Bill Hicks compilation), but British debut filmmaker Matt Harlock and documentarian Paul Thomas attempt something a little bit different with American: The Bill Hicks Story. Speaking with the ’10 people who knew Bill best’, the film uses still photographs and animation (in a similar way to the recent Allen Ginsberg docu-drama HOWL), along with interviews of Hicks’ family, friends and peers, and of course, vintage footage of his stand-up performances. While this animated technique may be off-putting at first, especially for those expecting a more traditional ‘talking heads’ documentary, it achieves a level of intimacy not seen in previous filmed portraits.
Of course, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Being told by the people who knew Bill best has the drawback of not covering every dark aspect of his life, although none of them pull punches when it comes to his failings. The audience is never fully introduced to Goat Boy, the uninhibited alter-ego that fascinated Hicks in his later years and was a creature of pure id (“Tie me to your headboard. Throw your legs over my shoulders, let me roll you like a feed bag.”). His pieces on abortion are strangely glossed over, and we get only the slightest hint about his outrage on the first Gulf War. Yet to truly understand Hicks, one must see his stand-up performances. Although Hicks is not around to speak for himself, we are lucky to have so many of his performances committed to CD and video. From the amazing early archival footage, through his first big break of Sane Man and the mighty Revelations (where he reached rock god status), we get a sense of what made Hicks special. His material still resonates today, partly because the issues he dealt with – flag burning, government lies, war in the Gulf, the collective apathy of the masses – could easily be ripped from the headlines and sadly still apply today. Up until recently, we didn’t even have to change the name of the President he was ranting about.
To go deeper, fans will need to look to Cynthia True’s heartbreaking American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story or Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution, the tome by his lifelong friend Kevin Booth (and director of American Drug War: The Last White Hope). However, it does serve as an excellent and timely gateway into the world of Hicks. Sixteen years after his death, Hicks remains as angry and as relevant to modern audiences as he did back in his prime. As the representative of the filmmakers reminded us at the Sydney premiere as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival, Hicks was always more popular in Australia and the UK than he was in his home territory. Fans will find that American: The Bill Hicks Story covers most of the main reasons we love Hicks, and new fans will find this a great primer before dipping their toes into the waters of Dangerous or the essential Arizona Bay. Weeks, perhaps years, of indecision in various parliaments around the world have left most citizens apathetic to government deception and actions that are not in the best interests of the people that elected them. This film reminds us why we should always maintain the rage.
Overall rating: ★★★★
American: The Bill Hicks Story is released in the UK on DVD 27 October 2010, boasting over 5 hours of bonus features. Madman Entertainment will be distributing this in Australia, with a local release date TBA.