American: The Bill Hicks Story

Director    Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
Release    14 MAY (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


16th May 2010

"I don't mean to sound bitter, cold or cruel...but I am, so that's how it comes out" once said Bill Hicks, the outlaw comic who is consistently regarded as one of the best comedians of all time, and it's a theme that informed most of his now legendary stand-up routines. Unfortunately, he died of pancreatic cancer aged 32, just as his home country of the US was starting to pay attention to his unique comedy philosophy.

Rather than create a compilation of Hicks' greatest hits, this documentary aims to provide a closer examination of the man by giving a chronological account of his life, portrayed through a mix of anecdotes from friends and family, home videos, some distinctive animation and gig footage of the comic at work. The end result is a revealing insight into a man who didn't live long enough to see himself become a legend.

It's a comprehensive film that portrays Hicks' rise in popularity, from when he first sneaked out of his bedroom window to perform at a stand-up club aged 15, to his descent into (and eventual recovery from) the drink-and-drug addiction that would so frequently form the basis of his routines. While most of the stories told here have already featured in other documentaries about the comic, the unlimited access to unseen private footage and stand-up recordings make this an invaluable resource for fans, as well as a respectable introduction for newbies.

[gallery]This is sometimes to its detriment though. In trying to provide a thorough portrait of Hicks' career, hardcore fans will be left frustrated at seeing too many familiar clips. The odd glimpse at previously unavailable gig videos creates genuine thrills for the already-converted, but these moments seems too infrequent given the unlimited access that filmmakers Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock were allowed to the Hicks 'vault'.

Also, it's hard not to notice that, while the documentary poses as an exhaustive attempt to define Bill Hicks the man, the girlfriends in his life are conspicuous by their absence. Friends and family do a noble job in painting the comedian's portrait with anecdotes, but it's hard not to feel dissatisfied with the complete lack of a mention for any of the important relationships that Hicks had. It's understandable that old girlfriends would perhaps not want to be interviewed, but this side of his life is still an important issue that really should be addressed in some way, rather than just ignored in the hope that no one will notice.

The film does, however, redeem itself by having a refreshing visual style as the unusual animation used lends an interesting flair to the memories told. Family photos are manipulated alongside location pictures to create a three-dimensional photorealism that reproduces the events shared, while the images chosen are used for both comedy and dramatic effect, depending on the scenario.

Overall, it's hard not to just sit back and enjoy what is still a very insightful testament to a man who has become somewhat of a cult icon. Dedicated fans will want more gig footage and may feel short-changed by the lack of famous acts, such as his demonic Pan-like alter ego, Goatboy, but watching Hicks work the stage like the true genius he was is still extremely entertaining, no matter how many times you may have seen it before.

More:  Bill Hicks
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