American: The Bill Hicks Story

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July 12, 2011 by Mark Mesaros

Bill Hicks died too young at the age of 32 and it seems obvious that things have gotten much worse since he left us. If you talk to fans these days, it seems like what they lament the most is that Bill isn’t around to mount cogent attacks against the current crop of pundits, against Corporate America, against the hypocrisy and religiosity of the Bush-Blair years. We need Bill’s sardonic wisdom or something like it now more than ever, I often hear people say or see them write. He was intellectually equipped to deal with these enemies of man. Perhaps the best we can hope for is a film like American. Featured in the film are clips from the first ‘concert’ video of a Hicks performance called Sane Man, a little movie that I still number among my favorite things ever recorded. There’s a rawness and a power in that performance that tells you all you need to know about Bill Hicks, the Comedian. Due to such high-quality archival stuff lying around such as that, along with all of his concert footage, appearances on Letterman and videos shot in small clubs that have found their way onto the internet, there always seemed little need for a feature-length ‘documentary’. Needless to say, I was skeptical. And rightfully so given past experience with this manner of film biography.

Having seen quite a few films like this now that cover beloved cult figures, once again I’m compelled to reassess my notions of documentary. I think I’ve finally made up my mind. For the record, this isn’t a documentary; neither is Who Is Harry Nilsson? which I reviewed not too long ago. This is a biographical assemblage, a collage of facts if you will. The point here is to portray a life lived, not to document something. Werner Herzog makes documentaries; he once took a small film crew to a Caribbean island under threat of a volcanic eruption to film ostensibly nothing, but it was an event and it was happening under his lens. Documentaries are inherently present tense; American is an over-the-shoulder glance at a life, a testament to things that have passed and perhaps a renewed provocation. So it’s not fictional, but it’s still not a documentary. Better than biographical assemblage, I’m going to start calling these ‘legacy’ films. It’s a word with a strong negative connotation for me, which works perfectly given the lack of quality usually proffered by these, say it with me now, legacy films.

The filmmakers here do everything they can to make the story of Hicks, the outlaw comic, riveting, but, thankfully, they also do something else. They begin by telling the story of a childhood in the South and the rise of a performer. This is where the animated photos used throughout, courtesy of unknown animator Graham Smith, are at their most effective. Hicks’ childhood buddy and fellow comic, Dwight Slade, does an uncanny impression of Bill. The filmmakers let Slade tell the story of their first meeting and their first gig, and Slade’s impressions of Bill, his family and others forms an audio drama, fleshed out by stills of the characters involved being animated with location stills. So we actually get to see and hear a young Bill and Dwight stealing away from Bill’s parents into the seclusion of his bedroom where they dream their dreams, all without the aid of video footage. The boys’ escape to a club to play their first gig on a school night is thrillingly recounted using the above-mentioned techniques, as is the aftermath where Dwight is forced to move to Oregon with his family and part with his partner in comedy.

The film really takes off at this point by interspersing clips of Bill’s act as it developed over the years and his experimentation with psilocybin as recounted by Dwight and fellow high-minded spirit Kevin Booth with the reactions to Bill’s work from family, friends and peers. Another great moment has Bill’s older brother, Steve, and his mother recounting their first experience of Bill’s show when his polemical act was first starting to come together with all it’s vitriol and ecstasy. In the audio interview (and most of the interviews are relegated to audio), Mrs. Hicks argues that she enjoyed the show and was proud of her son, while Steve is convinced that she’s merely forgotten it and that in fact she and Mr. Hicks were startled by Bill’s act and its untamed fervor at the time.

That scene plays almost like kindling for the remainder of the film, which dives headlong into Bill’s mature years and his most recognizable performances. He’s broken the mold at this point and the film is intent on stoking the fires that raged all too briefly and mesmerized so many, myself included. This is the section where the case for Bill’s importance is made. The surprising thing is that the filmmakers don’t include his best jokes in an attempt to solidify his place in comedy. In fact, I’d go so far to say that viewers unacquainted with Bill’s act probably wouldn’t come away from this film finding him very funny. Bill’s act is funnier the more you see it, the more you get to know him, and the more you share his worldview. Obvious, perhaps.

The most salient issue dropped by the wayside is the twin issue of Bill’s sanity and his hubris. It was probably apparent earlier on, but if you go back and watch some of his better known clips, especially from the DVD set Revelations, you’ll see a comic on the verge of the abyss. Bill came up with a routine very late in his career that involved a Panic character whom he referred to as ‘Goat Boy’. It was a sort of alter-ego of Bill’s that would come out on stage and meander into indulgent fantasies of a sexual Eden as he temporarily forgot that he was in the middle of a comedy set. It’s a hilarious bit and it’s fascinating watching how far he’ll take it which was usually on the other side of too far. I’m sure it creeped a great deal of the audience out, an audience that was already on his side at this point in his career.

We can chalk it all up to ‘dedication to his craft’, but I’ve always sensed in those routines something disturbing. And I think what it is is a comic trying desperately to defeat his audience. Bill reached a point where he was tired of going for laughs. In fact, over his entire career can be seen a man becoming increasingly convinced that humor isn’t the proper outlet for expressing his notions, that his audience is laughing when he wants them to be thinking seriously with him, or crying. As a result, he began pushing audiences to the brink. By the time of his last big televised specials, to be an audience member at a Bill Hicks show meant that one’s threshold for taboo-breaking was already pretty wide, but that wasn’t enough for Bill—he had to defeat that sense of surety; to be on his side meant, to Bill, that they weren’t trying hard enough, that they were content to laugh and rage, from a comfortable distance, with a guy who was saying everything they wanted to say, but weren’t.

This is, indeed, part of what made his comedy so great. The sense that you were never quite sure if he was in earnest or not. There’s a bit about advertisers that makes its way into American that sums this point. Throughout the bit the comic says perhaps six or seven times that what he’s saying isn’t a joke, that advertising stooges should actually go and kill themselves because they’re contributing nil to the human race. Everytime Bill emphasizes that he isn’t telling a joke it’s like a cue and the audience laughs. This is real anger, folks; I think we can take the man at his word. He was pissed. And he wanted us to be pissed too. Fellow philosophical outlaw Robert Anton Wilson once said that, ultimately, he could never reach the objects of his derision, that all he could hope to do was give throat to those who were already inclined against those very objects to formulate their own ideas and speak for themselves. I think the same applies to Hicks. He couldn’t transform the opposition and I think it wore him down. He could only speak for those of us who thought he was saying everything the way it ought to be said.

Toward the end Bill would always commence his shows by telling his audience that he’s a child of light, sent to spread the true word to his flock. His flock, of course, was also an enemy, out of either sloth or incompetence. Bill once told an audience that he was sick of touring, that he was tired of making people laugh at jokes that they weren’t intelligent enough to formulate on their own. Of course, this got a laugh. It’s easy to deride Bill for that kind of attitude and those kinds of comments, the subject of which the makers of American do not even broach, but it’s another part of who he was. He wasn’t a saint. He occasionally flew off the handle and allowed his vision of utopia to consume him. He truly believed he had been on a spaceship, had entered the void and understood the old Buddhist notions. These were the things the fueled much of his comedy, that allowed him to work as tirelessly as a missionary and to provoke all those who bore witness. But let’s not sweep it under the rug. Bill wouldn’t have wanted that and I’m sure he’d be indignant about being the subject of this film.

The final segments, of course, focus on Bill’s losing battle with prostate cancer and his last days. I knew a good deal about his death and what led up to it already, but it’s still an incredible tale that deserves to be told to a fresh audience. I hate to throw away a word like ‘inspiring’, but it really fucking is. It’s inspiring. Not just the way one particular person copes with what’s happening to his body and its mortality, but what it says about our attitudes to life, the way we walk around acting as if we have all the time in the world. For me, Bill’s legacy is irrelevant; he will never be loved in this country, as much as the title fights against it1. The film may not open a brave new audience to Bill’s ideas or humor, but it will inspire many. If nothing else, this movie makes you want to run out of the theater and do something. That’s Bill’s legacy.

1 Clearly filmmakers Harlock and Thomas recognize the irony of making a film about a man who was spurned by the nation that spawned him, they themselves being Brits. It was in the UK that Hicks found his natural audience and where his comedic legacy most endures.

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