SXSW Review: ‘American: The Bill Hicks Story’

I’ve never heard of Bill Hicks before this movie. In fact, when I first heard about the film, I thought it was a fan mockumentary about Kevin Smith’s character Gil Hicks, the sorry sap from Mallrats whose idea of showing a girl a nice time opened with letting her shop at the places she wanted to shop. But it wasn’t about Gil, it was about Bill.

Bill Hicks was an American comedian in the vein of Sam Kinison or more recently Lewis Black—the angry, shrieking outragers who savage the spirit of their times and stomp around the stage menacingly, careful not to slip on their own froth. And he was also very funny, too.

However, it takes An American: Bill Hicks a while to get to them—the first half hour or so focuses on his early life, his entrance into the world of stand-up at a precocious 15, his heavy reliance on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, and his early rise to fame. This is done through a few interviews with his mother (who was in attendance), his brother (in attendance as well), and some fellow stand-up friends (check and check). Their words play over photographs of the young Hicks that turn static, 2D photos into 3D animations with fore and backgrounds, movement, and charm.

But it’s very dull. For one, not knowing Hicks is a detriment to any viewer, as the filmmakers go straight into his early life without any explanation as to why we should be interested. His early life has some points of interest but nothing especially engaging for anyone but the dedicated Hicks fans.

The animations are overused, too. When they first appear, they’re impressive, but the neat trick wears itself out quickly when you realize it’s foremost among the three in the director’s repertoire—the other two being a straight-on shot for interviews and stock footage.  And for an hour-and-forty-five-minute running time, you want a little variety to keep your attention.

The latter half of the film covers some of the more significant events in Hicks’ life—his delicate sobriety, trips to the UK (which I believe was the primary inspiration for the British filmmakers of American), and spat with David Letterman—but they’re glossed over for more interviews of the same people, talking about the same, same, same things we’ve heard them say for the last hour and so.

A fellow critic and fan of Hicks mentioned that he shared some mushrooms with his elderly, deeply conservative father—that in itself would have been a high point of the film if it had been addressed. But it wasn’t.

Nor is Hicks’ influence on other comedians, which the filmmakers noted was their intent. Or maybe it was about his willingness to criticize American politics. Or his willingness to face death from lung cancer at the too-young age of 32.

The last half brings in so many intriguing plotlines, it’s criminal that they’re never followed up. Instead, American: The Bill Hicks Story is just a long life in pictures, more apt for a wake than the theatre…and very, very long.

  • Jeff
    March 16, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    People who don’t know who Bill Hicks was, should not review a documentary on his life, as simple as that.

    • Shannon Hood
      March 16, 2010 at 9:31 pm

      @Jeff, I respectfully disagree. If everyone who reviewed movies had to do background research on every movie that they ever see, you wouldn’t see many reviews on this site or any other site. A good movie should be able to stand on its own merit, whether you know the background story or not. It is a stand alone piece of art, and it is ridiculous to state that a reviewer should be familiar with a film’s subject matter in order to review it. Most people I know have quit watching trailers and don’t do research before a movie so that they go in with fresh eyes.

      Film festivals, in particular, are places where people are encouraged to try something new, something they might not otherwise be exposed to. It’s all about discovering something new. By your standards, I am not fit to review any documentaries, ever, because I am usually attracted to subject matter that I am not already familiar with.

  • Matt
    March 15, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Um. It was pancreatic cancer, not lung cancer. Not that it’s very important in hindsight.

    I also wonder if the best reviewer was someone who not only had never heard of Bill Hicks but thought he was a spoof of a character in a Kevin Smith movie. That kind of dates you a little bit, no offense. Bill Hicks was obscure but not THAT obscure, for people over the age of 35 or so at least. He had HBO specials, was on Letterman a dozen times etc.

    I saw this same showing and thought it was quite good, and not because I was a Bill Hicks fan (in fact that probably makes me more critical, since I had pretty high expectations going in). Agreed that the beginning is a bit slow, but there is quality stuff in here, great quality comedy footage too. The entire audience was rolling in the aisles for most of the film, even though you thought it was “very dull.” Something you completely failed to mention.

    • Nat Almirall
      March 15, 2010 at 11:23 pm

      Thanks for the comment, but clearly we weren’t at the same screening, as the audience I saw it with had all of two people laughing at the rest of the film (though they were pretty loud). One was in the middle row and sported a booming guffaw. The other was right in front of me and obviously drunk.

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