American: The Bill Hicks Story

I'm new to Bill Hicks (and stand-up in general) so getting my info from this film might give me a different slant from other Bill Hicks fans. This biography has a particular approach: getting at the subject through the people who knew him best -- family, friends and their archive of photos and video. It's Bill Hicks from the subjective standpoints of those close to him, and the filmmakers take a step back to let them tell the story. This is their testimony, and we judge the truth-value for ourselves. The way they use animation to realize the various episodes described is clever. We don't just get talking heads, but a larger-than-life reconstruction of what they are talking about: a great way to portray the workings of memory.

This is one way of doing biography, valuable perhaps, but with Bill Hicks I think there's a lot that's missed out from the focus on his personal life. As the film makes clear enough, his work was a way of escaping where he came from. Indeed, the info the film provides gets very general whenever Hicks is away from Texas and his family. We don't get many details on this life placed in different contexts. Where does Hicks fit into the history of stand-up comedy? Woody Allen and Richard Pryor are mentioned as influences, but for those that don't know who they are, what did Hicks take from them? What was his influence on others? Why was he so successful in Britain? What did he read? His philosophy can't JUST be explained as a result of a far-out trip on magic mushrooms. How did his stand-up actually WORK? One thing I noticed from the clips was the way Hicks could get away with critiquing American idiocy by co-opting parts of the audience and making them feel that they weren't the stupid ones.

This is stuff a more traditional biography might cover, with input from academics and disciples. Perhaps it has been covered to death elsewhere, which is why this film took this particular route. It provides a very good portrait of the man: hard-working, driven, very American as the title suggests. But my feeling is it missed a lot of what made Bill Hicks such a cult figure.

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