Some say that when we die, we go into the hearts and minds of the people who love us. It’s a poetic sentiment for believer and atheist alike, and a truth evident throughout the lovingly crafted documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, in which the short life of the greatest comedian you’ve (probably) never heard of is recounted by the individuals who knew him best. Like any great artist, his material—comedy-laced commentary equal parts subversive, socially conscious, loving, brutal, uncensored, personal, and intolerant of intolerance—was timeless, and the vivacity with which his career is revisited here is such that it’s hard to believe he’s been gone for nearly 20 years. Those unaware of his death often listen to him raging against the machine of the George H.W. Bush years and the first Iraq war (or, on a lesser note, the soulless comedy of Jay Leno) and mistake it for a direct response to the ailments of more recent years. Such parallels speak not only to an eerie historical déjà vu, but the precision with which Hicks isolated the hypocrisies of the establishment and laid them out in a singularly scathing narrative of truth. If only we had him now.
Those who know Hicks’s work tend to know it well. His life’s work was rich but limited by definition, and it speaks to what the man, cut down by pancreatic cancer at the unjust age of 32, accomplished in his brief career (he only recorded four albums in his lifetime, two of which were released posthumously) that he continues to be held in such high regard, his recognition and respect ceaselessly growing over the past two decades. Such as it is, American is less about his professional career than his personal life, insofar as one can separate the two when considering so personally honest and hardworking a performer, and sans pandering to docu-hungry audiences, the film works equally well as an introduction for newcomers, a family reunion for longtime fans, and a miniature greatest-hits package for both. If that means American misses out on the rancor that’s ensured Bill’s legacy by going light on footage of his bombastic live performances (it’s apparent in bits and pieces, from his stated desire for advertisers to commit suicide to his refusal to take shit from audience hecklers), it compensates by examining the relatively warm and fuzzy man behind the mic. The touching inclusion of home-movie footage at a lakeside getaway house is evidence of a man full of love, hateful only toward those who perpetuate greed and injustice in the world.
Utilizing a cut-and-paste animation style with a photographic edge to recreate scenes from Hicks’s life, usually to cheeky effect, American turns some 90 minutes of interview footage into a smooth, illustrated, altogether agreeable narrative that is chockfull of anecdotes and achieves a genuine intimacy without resorting to hero-worship (only the occasionally lame visual, such as the whitewashed depictions of tripping during Bill’s mushroom blowouts at Kevin Booth’s ranch, weaken the device). Bill’s parents, siblings, and closest contacts guide us through the biographic narrative, each of them obviously in awe of the subject, but altogether down to earth about his many facets. While railing against government hypocrisy, religious ignorance, and media-reinforced herd mentality, Bill found transcendence through substance use, which nearly destroyed him (when asked why he ultimately quit drugs, he’d respond that “once you’ve been taken aboard a UFO, it’s kind of hard to top that”). Although the film doesn’t make time to fully investigate his body of work, which, from his bitter liberalism (the dubiously titled “comedy of hate”) to his pre-cancer embracement of smoking (“I go through two lighters a day,” he’d often quip), is admittedly problematic, it nevertheless refuses to shy away from these darker corners of his existence.
The Georgia-born but Houston-bred Hicks took to comedy as an art form at a young age, studying everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Richard Pryor to Woody Allen, and began performing—first with his friend Dwight Slade, later solo—to great success at the newly opened and now defunct Comedy Workshop in Houston. As a teenager, he sailed past most of the competition; dropping out of college after only two weeks, it became apparent to all that he was born to perform, which he continued to do as he saw fit and against all odds for the duration of his life. A failed attempt to make it in L.A. as both a comic and screenwriter would typify his poor reception in America; despite thousands of performances coast to coast and a handful of appearances of David Letterman, he remained virtually anonymous stateside.
It wasn’t until a breakthrough show at a 1992 Montreal comedy festival—later broadcast on British television—that he got the attention he deserved, selling out arenas to audiences yearning for his brand of gadflyism. Like some tragicomic screenwriting device, it was during this rise that the pancreatic cancer took hold, but it was also during this time that Bill wrote, performed, and recorded most furiously, resulting in two concept albums—Rant in E-Minor and Arizona Bay—that music critic Brian Flota described as “the comedy equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman film.” With any luck, American will plant the seeds of interest in those hungry for another voice of reason in a world seemingly coming apart at the seams. It’s greatness as a documentary is debatable, but as a eulogy, it’s damn near unparalleled.
American was assembled from video sources of varying, often technically limited qualities, all of which are rendered beautifully by the gorgeous 1080i/AVC video transfer (the video lines from an early VHS recording are themselves worthy of a nostalgic swoon). The animated sequences look about as exquisite as modestly budgeted computer animation can aspire to, but as the film's most prominent image is that of the human face, the real showoffs here are the expertly rendered skin tones. For what it is, it's a visually splendid grab bag of mixed media. The 5.1 DTS is equally proficient in rendering a modestly assembled mix. Nothing to break out your surround system here, but the eloquent speaking voices and Bill Hicks's fiery on-stage performances ("Play from your fucking HEAAART!") show off the subtler side of digital clarity.
A motherload, not unlike a long-overdue reward for fans, many of whom were already waiting over two years for the release of the film. Spread across both discs are three hours of raw interview footage recorded for the film, laid out in an order relatively chronological to Hicks's life story. In many ways this scarcely-overlapping material is more engaging and satisfying than the movie itself. Disc two is host to the remainder of extras, beginning with some 90 minutes of featurettes covering everything from Hicks's recording and album-composition methods, posthumous festivals and tributes, friends and family, a visit to Abbey Road studios, and the making of Hicks and Kevin Booth's ultra-low budget VHS feature, "Ninja Bachelor Party" (which is sadly not included, but can be found on the recent Essential CD/DVD collection). If you're not already worn out, there's a handful of deleted and alternate scenes, about 15 minutes of rare Hicks performances, three achingly intimate audio journal recordings, and a theatrical trailer.
Love, laughter, truth, and dick jokes. For longtime fans and newcomers alike, this set does justice to one of the great American talents of the last century.