American: The Bill Hicks Story: (2009) – By Gail Spencer

It is difficult to express just how special and unique Bill Hicks was. Attempts at portraying this in the past have been limited to tags on to his comedy DVDs – most notably ‘Totally’. Bill died in 1994, but there has been a strong following of him and his output to this day. He is often labeled as the comedian’s comedian – but The Bill Hicks Story shows him as a child, a brother, son, a fellow traveler in the comedy world and a consistent purveyor of truth. It is refreshingly absent of opinion of Bill from other comedians apart from those who directly worked with him.

The style of the film is brilliant, juxtaposing animated photography with archive never-seen-before footage with the memories of interested and involved parties providing the various voice overs. As a documentary it comes over as a smart and intimate piece with strong and highly imaginative use of imagery.  One particular example of this is the recollections alluding to Bill’s first acid trip: he and two friends’ take off to the woods to look at the stars after eating magic mushrooms. This is put over in cartoon with exploding stars gently filling the screen. It was three years in production after initially being set at six months. It was a work that stood At 4.5 hours long on completion with work still to be done. It is overlong but exquisitely loaded. The editor would have to be careful.

The director and production team were all there at the premiere along with Bill’s family. Bill’s mother sat in the middle of the audience to properly gauge how well it was received. It was a special occasion for them: Bill played to a sold out UK tour at the back end of the 1980s and considered the English as his natural audience “they just get me” he told his brother. Too right we do – along with millions of others. Bill Hicks was a man with a mission and a message – to ignore all persuasive marketing and advertising and to think for yourself. For this he was censored in his professional life and his struggle with the powerful opposing mind set is reminiscent of Lenny Bruce, a comedian Bill is often compared to. They were both staunchly civil libertarian in outlook and output.

Anyone who wants to know more about Bill as a work in progress should see this movie: charming and lovely detail is put over with love and care. He was a Stand Up comic from the age of 13 – getting to his first gig by escaping out of his parent’s house with his friend Dwight to appear (on a school night) at a Huston comedy club – somewhere that would eventually take him as one of their ‘Outlaws’.  One thing that stands out is how Bill influenced those around him and was lucky (until his untimely diagnosis of pancreatic cancer) in finding those who could and did propel his life forward. He was born into a family who loved and accepted him, met his best friend and soul mate at a very early age and the first place he went to perform, embraced him and made him one of their own.

His family and friends saw him through battles with alcohol dragging him off the circuit when it was doing him more harm than good.  But this is essentially the beauty of this documentary: without the endless efforts of the production team to painstakingly acquire all the pieces of intimate detail – this would be just another talking shop of appreciation. The three years have resulted in providing all those who love Bill Hicks with a truly wonderful account of a deeply enigmatic man and performer.  A fine piece of work and a damned good story.