sat 19/04/2014

American: The Bill Hicks Story | Comedy reviews, news & interviews

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Affectionate and innovative biopic of iconic American comic

Bill Hicks: his dark, subversive material was before its time
Bill Hicks: his dark, subversive material was before its time
If I had a fiver for every time I have heard a comic described (usually by the comic himself) as “the new Bill Hicks”, I would be rather comfortably off. It’s tosh, of course, and, as his brother astutely says in American: The Bill Hicks Story, only Bill Hicks could be Bill Hicks, because what you saw on the outside was what was on the inside. Hicks himself is in no position to argue either way: he died, aged 32, from pancreatic cancer in 1994. Those who die at the height of their powers are usually conferred icon status; some deserve it; many do not. On balance, Hicks almost certainly does, as this very fine biopic by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas shows.They have eschewed the conventional talking-heads approach and instead used an innovative animated photo technique to illustrate extensive testimonies from Hicks's family and friends, plus home movies and lots of footage of the comic’s stand-up career, much of it previously unseen. This engrossing film paints a vivid picture of a man driven to succeed in comedy and one whose political material - about America’s colonial ambitions, Middle East politics, consumerism, religion - wouldn’t be out of place today. Plus ça change...

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.

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