American: The Bill Hicks Story | Comedy reviews, news & interviews
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Affectionate and innovative biopic of iconic American comic
His loved ones clearly adored Hicks as a person, and his friends and colleagues recognised his towering talent as a stand-up. Hicks was born into a middle-class family in Georgia and grew up in Austin, Texas. His parents were religious and Hicks’s brother, Steve, points out early in the film: “People say we were fundamentalist Christians. We weren’t. We were something far worse - Southern Baptists.” Clearly wit runs in the family.
Hicks started doing comedy in clubs while still at high school, much to the horror of his parents, and then left for Los Angeles at the age of 18. His material then was mild, observational, a world away from the shock-jock comedy he later became revered for.
Much has been made of Hicks’s hell-raising; he didn’t drink or smoke when he joined the circuit but, surrounded by older comics who did both, he thought he should live on the edge a bit. Typically he took a very individual approach to such matters: “Bill was the only man I know who took drugs before he started drinking,” says one friend. As his reputation as a boozer and toker grew, so it became a game among his fans to send drinks up on stage to see how soon Hicks would be lying on the floor drunk and screaming into the microphone. But he went into rehab in 1988 and was sober for the rest of his life. Many creatives fear they may lose their mojo if they no longer drink, but it was the making of Hicks; his inner rage had been unleashed and he found a more coherent way to express it.
His comedy became angrier, more thoughtful and insightful - philosophical even - and it is the material he did in these years he is best known for, but his success was mainly in the UK. Maybe he was ahead of his time, maybe he was a prophet in his own land, maybe Brits have a greater fondness for edgy comedy, but his clever, dark and subversive material challenged America’s belief systems. Yet politically punchy comics such as Bill Maher and Jon Stewart have long since entered the American mainstream, so one may assume that had Hicks lived he would have too - and what I would give to have heard him fulminate about George W Bush in the White House.
This is an affectionate portrayal of a man the co-directors clearly admire. If there was any badness in Hicks, it isn’t revealed here, nor is there any reference to any love - or indeed lust - interest in the comic’s life and that is the film’s one glaring weakness. But it looks lovely, is cleverly made and full of interesting facts about Hicks, and never overstays its welcome at nearly two hours.
- American: The Bill Hicks Story opens on Friday
- Find Bill Hicks on Amazon
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