Presumably designed as an introduction to and/or fan’s celebration of a man often lauded as the greatest stand-up comedian of the last quarter-century, American: The Bill Hicks Story often makes the mistake of telling, not showing. The distinguishing fillip of Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’s narrative of Hicks’s personal and public life, ended at 32 by pancreatic cancer in 1994, is that it’s mostly photo-animated, with collages-in-motion of its hero’s stomping grounds and showbiz haunts populated by contemporaneous images of Bill and his fellow travelers, while 10 people who knew him well, from mother Mary to best friend Dwight Slade, recount his struggles and breakthroughs. It’s a fairly painless if occasionally twee strategy to avoid talking-heads-and-clips monotony (the nadir comes when Hicks and buddies’ foray into the Texas woods to ingest psychedelics is represented with New Agey golden sunbursts and trippy planetarium-style effects), but, in its doting over places and landscapes instead of Hicks’s onstage jeremiads, keeps the filmmakers from presenting more than piddling amounts of performance clips, which should be the meat of the argument for their subject’s significance.
It’s not until his amped-up, scabrous material on the 1991 Gulf War, featured in a Montreal festival set that won him a devoted British following after it was televised in the U.K., that we see more than an uninterrupted minute or so of the jaundiced rage, delivered with flippancy but never a wink, that made Hicks more than another touring stand-up with an HBO special. Along with his cogent dismissal of the early ‘90s proposal to constitutionally ban flag burning, the highlight is some heartfelt advice to marketing professionals: “You are fucked and fucking us. Kill yourself. No joke, just planting seeds: kill yourself.”
Working in clubs since his mid-teens, Hicks was a teetotaler until age 21 when, burned out on the L.A. comedy scene and sensing a need to move beyond mainstream-friendly humor, he returned to his hometown of Houston for smaller-pond comfort. Beginning his substance-abuse phase by downing seven consecutive margaritas at the bar and regularly getting trashed at the mike, the spectacle of his liquored-up rants prompted fellow comics and audience members to play “How drunk can we get Bill?” In this unlikely about-face from family-and-school-days jokes to a cathartic bitterness at the world and himself, shown in a darkly convincing bit where he envisions an ex-girlfriend’s doom under the crushing weight of an obese trailer-park husband, Hicks set himself apart as a primal screamer with leftier politics than his smug reactionary peer Sam Kinison.
If American sees Hicks’s plunge into alcoholism as a near-fatal six-year bender (he clung only to tobacco in sobriety, aggressively lampooning anti-smoking crusaders), it nearly unequivocally celebrates his drug use as a transcendental gateway to his fervid, late-career embrace of didactic leftism and pleas for disarmament and individual liberation. The title means to paint Hicks as an avatar of free expression through his “fearless” act, but as with George Carlin’s late-life anger at American sloth and ignorance, his preaching not infrequently obscured the comedy. The doc’s last movement, with Hicks continuing to perform, and becoming obsessed with government culpability for the 1993 Branch Davidian inferno in Waco, after his cancer diagnosis, is compelling but spottily assembled, perhaps due to video rights; why mention the broadcast excision of his appearance on a Letterman show when neither the footage (since aired by CBS) nor any explanation of the cut appears? While Bill Hicks’s transformation from clownish Southern Baptist teenager to cultishly adored social commentator is an arresting tale, American falls short in failing to focus on the monologues that made him a beloved and alienating rogue; on that score, his albums and video archives will have to suffice.