To Lower the Standards
I've quoted stand-up comic Bill Hicks many times in my reviews. He was the ultimate cultural critic, a master of vicious observational barbs that I can only aspire to. Even though his attacks on the mediocrity of news media and mass entertainment went far beyond bad taste, he was always sincere. He wanted people to demand more of themselves and of the people running the show. Hicks's words and point of view have heavily influenced my own.
Which is why critiquing the new documentary about his life, American: The Bill Hicks Story, is especially difficult. As much as I loved seeing rare footage from his career and listening to different takes on stories I've heard over fourteen years of being a fan, I have to judge the movie's success or failure as a documentary. Sadly, this movie will likely leave die-hards and newcomers a little cold.
The main problem is co-directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas's insular take on Hicks's life. The film is narrated by the comedian's friends, family, and some of the comics that got their start with him in Texas. They describe a rebelious, goofy teenager who snuck out of the house with his best friend, Dwight Slade, to perform stand-up comedy on schoolnights. We hear about an early trip to L.A. and a defeated return home; about the dark decade of drinking; the liberation of sobriety; and the consciousness-and-set-list-expanding wonders of psychedelic mushrooms. Finally, we hear about Hicks's brief battle with pancreatic cancer, which claimed his life at age 32. It's all very interesting, but American feels less like a documentary than a slickly produced tribute one might play at a funeral.
Looking at the numerous photo collages that the directors and animator Graham Smith manipulate (with varying degrees of success) into South-Park-style recreations of key moments in Hicks's life, we see Sam Kinison and the rest of the notorious "Outlaw Comics"; yet Kinison is never mentioned in the film. Neither is Denis Leary, who, depending on which version of history you choose to believe, acknowleged stealing much of Hicks's act. The movie also glosses over the comic's struggles with Jay Leno and David Letterman, both of whom advised Hicks at different points to clean up his material and make it less challenging for mainstream audiences.
These juicy, dramatic events swept under a rug of nostalgia in favor of unfounded hero worship. The documentary is rife with testimonials about how influential and groundbreaking Hicks was, but only from his inner circle. Like the far better Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, American mistakenly fails to back up claims about its "legendary" subject with stories from performers who were influenced by himm. It's the documentary equivalent of a mother boasting about her son's latest piece of refrigerator artwork.
As a Hicks fan, I wish the filmmakers had spent more time and money getting interviews and digging deeper into the comics' impact than wasting a lot of energy on cutesy kids-growing-up-in-the-70s motion graphics. In fact, this movie is pretty much a Cliff's Notes version of Cynthia True's excellent 2002 book, American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story. It's hard to say how much of that book was authorized or factual, but it was damned compelling--moreso than most of what you'll see in this film.
One of the reasons an outside perspective is so crucial is because, based solely on the footage presented here, it's unclear whether or not newcomers to Hicks's brand of humor would find him funny or eye-opening. Indeed, the best versions of his act can be found on his comedy albums; the segments shown in the movie are unpolished variations that, at times, come across as just an angry, animated guy screaming at his "stupid" audience. Without a greater social context or testimony from fellow comics who would go on to mainstream success, one could easily walk away from American thinking, "No wonder I never heard of this clown"--rather than, "Why didn't I ever hear about his guy?"
It would have also been nice to hear from comics or media titans who didn't like Hicks. There's a reason he toured America and Europe for almost twenty years and died in relative obscurity. Much of this has been attributed to his refusal to sell out, but what of the people who did? What about the people Hicks criticized in his act, the ones throwing the levers of power? Did they respect him, or think him a fool?
Sorry. I've spent the last three paragraphs on wishful thinking, and not really reviewing the movie. But as someone who's waited a long time for a documentary on one of his heroes, only to be presented with a well-put-together puff piece, there's not much else I can do. It's sad that I've learned more about the comic's troubled life by reading True's book and listening to Marc Maron's podcast than from watching a feature-length film. Bill Hicks spent much of his adult life demanding transparency on political and religious issues and ridiculing superficiality. I'm kind of glad he's not around to see what would have surely been his latest target.