Review: “American: The Bill Hicks Story” is a Heroic Dose

On the surface, it's a pretty typical story: Young firebrand lives fast, dies young, and becomes an icon to a generation of wannabes and almost-ares. So what made Bill Hicks different? He wasn't pretty, he wasn't glamorous, and he didn't brood seductively on the silver screen. He spewed ideas into a microphone like a Gatling gun and tried his damnedest to make the docile masses of America wake up and think.

Is it any wonder he was never made it big in his home country?

The new documentary "American: The Bill Hicks" story is, like Hicks' stand-up at its best, thought-provoking, heartbreaking, and hilarious. Mixing talking head footage, voice-over, and some of Hicks' and his family's personal photos and videos, the doc explores what is was about Hicks that made him a legend among comedians and a virtual unknown to the world at large.

The film charts Hicks' early days - staging impromptu comedy sketches in the hallways of his Texas middle school with best friend Dwight Slade, sneaking out of his parents' house at age 15 to perform at Houston comedy clubs - through his rise to L.A.-based "next big thing" to drunken loose cannon to finally reaching comedy rock star status (although he had to go overseas to do so) to, finally, his pancreatic cancer diagnosis and death at the age of 32. It's a lot to cover for such a short life, so you can excuse the movie for not branching off from the main narrative, even if those branches are interesting in and of themselves. For example, we see pictures of Hicks with fellow "outlaw comic" Sam Kinison, but their relationship is never addressed. In fact, Kinison's name isn't even mentioned.  And the movie doesn't get within 30 miles of the long-standing claims that Denis Leary essentially lifted Hicks' entire persona (and some say, entire bits) to much more successful ends. But these are minor complaints.

We do applaud the movie, however, for keeping the talking heads personal. We get to hear from people like Slade who grew up with Hicks and well as Hicks' mother, brother, and sister rather than being forced to listen to a bunch of "famous" comedians prattling on about how much they owe to Hicks all the while reminding you of how much less talented they are. Can you imagine having to hear Dane Cook's thoughts on Hicks? It's enough to send you into a booze-fueled hate rant (in B-minor) of your own.  The technique of "animating" old photos of Hicks and friends employed by directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas is little clumsy at times, but it does make the doc more visually inventive than the usual B-roll/interview back and forth you get in most.

"American" works as well for fans who have been waiting for a proper tribute to Hicks as it will for newcomers who'll (hopefully) leave inspired to seek out the late comic's work (and they will be shocked at how relevant it all still is. Hicks' rants about the first President Bush and the first Iraq War are chilling, to say the least. Laugh out loud funny, of course, but also chilling).  And anything that screams for people to think more is, to say the least, welcome on any movie screen.

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