American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

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Part of being a film-lover is often finding something in a film that you can relate to. I have always managed to try and find some small part of every film that relates to me in some way, even if it is minuscule and completely insignificant. I have found so many films that bear a resemblance in some way to my own life or have some connection to me in some abstract, marginal way. However, very few films have meant more to me than American: The Bill Hicks Story. This little documentary film set out to tell the story of one of the most original and audacious men to ever live, a man who is not a stranger to the world and has become an icon. That man, as you’ve probably guessed by the title of the film, is Bill Hicks – not only do I think of him as the greatest comedian of all time, I consider him a personal hero and idol, and someone who I have looked up to for years. Be warned: I have a rabid adoration for Hicks that borders on radical idolization, and I will most likely endlessly gush about how much of a hero he is to me – trust me, absolutely none of it is hyperbolic.

If we look at film criticism, it is the job of the critic or essayist to try and detached one self from the film and take an objective and clear-minded approach to any film. For the most part, I adhere to this idea. Every film needs to be approached with a clean slate and an open mind, regardless of whether or not we are fond of or outright despise those involved. However, no matter how hard I tried, I just could not be objective with American: The Bill Hicks Story, because Hicks is just far too much of an influence on my life, so it stands to reason that I’d never be able to be completely objective when watching this film. However, having said that, I was able to separate the art from the subject and look at American: The Bill Hicks Story as a film rather than as a tribute. But we’ll get onto that later, because this may be the only time I can devote time exclusively to Bill Hicks, as American: The Bill Hicks Story is the only film based on his life made to date, so I might as well use this time to talk about one of the most important twentieth century icons and one of my personal heroes.

There seems to be a cult surrounding Bill Hicks, and speaking as someone who has been an ardent admirer of the man for years, I can admit to that myself. There is a seemingly endless multitude of people who see Hicks as this prophetic, relentless messiah of comedy, someone who saw through the lies and deceit in the world and made sure to explain his complete and utter contempt for society in any of his now-famous comedy specials. All of this is true, and the image of the screaming man, clad in black with a cigarette in his hand and a microphone in the other, has become iconic. I will admit that this was exactly what drew me to Hicks in the first place – but what kept me there was a completely different story and one that isn’t given nearly enough attention by those who purport to be devotees of Bill Hicks. What I realized through my somewhat religious watches and rewatches of his work – everything from comedy specials to bootleg performances – was that the most fascinating aspect of Bill was not that he was able to rant and get passionate about his beliefs in a way that was hilarious but also eye-opening.

Rather, what makes Bill such a personal hero can be found in the moments that no one pays attention to – the fact that, above everything else, Bill Hicks was just a person. He was a young man, doing what he loved and following his passion. Fiercely intelligent, slightly socially-awkward and willing to pour his heart and soul onto the stage, night after night, in the pursuit of not making money or becoming famous, but rather to try and impart his own beliefs of a better world onto everyone else, hoping that he (in some small way) can be responsible for the world becoming a more peaceful place. Perhaps Bill is best remembered for his fiery monologues on drugs or war, but what fascinated me the most about him was the beneath that veneer, there was a genuine and honest human. This is exactly where a discussion on American: The Bill Hicks Story comes in – because it is a documentary that sets out to tell the story of Bill in a way that would show his multifaceted life and personality, and not only the “public” side of Bill but his inner side as well.

I have been an enormous fan of Bill Hicks for a long time – so long, I have become somewhat of a scholar on the subject of Bill Hicks. I have scoured the internet, watching every stand-up appearance, taking careful notes in every interview and reading every article and tribute I could find. I periodically search for books written about him and look at pieces written on comedy, hoping that he is mentioned somewhere. For years, I thought I had acquired a massive and comprehensive library of everything that Bill Hicks ever put out there for public consumption. Yet, it was only until I watched American: The Bill Hicks Story that I found out that there was so much left to explore. This film is not your typical documentary on the life of a famous individual – it is nothing like those trashy documentary films that air on television, that apparently take you behind the scenes to give you “exclusive” looks at “backstage drama!” and “secret double lives!” (all of which are just a lethal concoction of rumors and publicity) – American: The Bill Hicks Story gives the audience access to the private life of Bill Hicks by having it narrated by the only people who can stand to be authorities on Bill – his family and friends. Interviews with his mother, siblings, and friends, ranging from childhood friends to colleagues throughout his career as a comedian, all of which tend towards showing us a realistic, honest and previously inaccessible side of a man that we thought we knew so well. This film includes previously unreleased material, such as family home movies and testimonies about his childhood and early years. For fans of Bill, American: The Bill Hicks Story may not tell us much that we didn’t know – but it serves as a treasure trove, a chronology of the life of our idol, telling us his story with the benefit of some new material that I doubt many people had seen before. A good documentary film is one that approaches its subject matter, regardless of what it is, and gives the audience something faithful, honest and unlike anything they can find elsewhere – and American: The Bill Hicks Story offers the audience so much more than one would expect.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is a unique documentary in so many ways – first of all, the manner in which it was made is truly remarkable. It is a truly cross-media experience, with the combination of archival footage and photographs being used creatively to tell this story – talking head interviews do occur throughout, but they are limited, rather choosing to focus on the visual aspects of this film, showing Bill throughout the years, whether it be through photographs, his stand-up routines or the aforementioned family home movies. At first glance, it may appear somewhat cheap and amateurish, but as the film progresses, one starts to see the inherent brilliance lurking beneath the decision to craft the film in this way. It has its own quirky charms, and it is so offbeat and original, I imagine Bill Hicks would thoroughly endorse this kind of unconventional approach to telling his life story, probably with the idea of anyone believing that he is deserving of an overly depressing and somewhat scandalous “documentary” being revolting to him. I think American: The Bill Hicks Story succeeds on the fact that it doesn’t only pay careful attention to being faithful to Bill’s life and being the film the fans deserved, but also that the filmmakers were very meticulous in making a film that Bill himself would approve of. They strove to make something honest and audacious, exactly like the man upon which this film is based.

It is a well-known fact that Bill Hicks died at the age of only thirty-two after a battle with pancreatic cancer. For any film about a subject we know had a tragic demise, one would expect a somewhat overly emotional and often depressing chronicle of their life that would culminate in a bleak end for the subject we are made to adore. Surprisingly, despite being about one of the few subjects that do warrant such cinematic treatment, American: The Bill Hicks Story is the polar opposite – it is filled with emotion, but positive ones – humor, joy and passionate anger. It was a film that captivated Bill’s legacy and his own personality and threw it together in a gloriously messy, deranged and hilarious portrait of the artist who would forever be a young man because of his early death. The final moments of this film were going to be tricky, but I knew there was only one way to end this film, with Bill’s iconic “It’s Just a Ride” speech – and it did indeed end exactly like that. It ended with Bill’s message of hope in the future, giving us the motivation to go out there and live good lives. It is a beautifully nostalgic, tragically melancholy moment, and far more touching than anything that could’ve been done in a more traditional documentary. I was worried about how this film would touch on the issue of Bill’s diagnosis and eventual death from cancer. Other than talking about how Bill used his final days to bring closure to everyone who mattered (including his fans and audiences worldwide), the personal issues are left untouched. Those hoping for a bleak, depressing story of how Bill spent his final days before dying will be sorely disappointed – the filmmakers made the right decision by keeping that private, as it should be. Bill Hicks may have been a public figure, but he was someone who battled his own issues, and while he did make it known eventually, many of those issues don’t need to be displayed for public consumption.

I just want to once again briefly just talk about what Bill Hicks means to me. Not to make it too personal or unprofessional, but I would hate myself if I didn’t quickly just impart a few thoughts. Bill Hicks (or rather, his legacy) came into my life at a very strange point. I was a confused, lonely teenager who just wanted to find someone or something that understood me. It was only when I opened up the old box of CDs and found a dusty copy of an album called “Arizona Bay” did I actually start the journey to where I am now. Putting that CD into the player, I instantly became drawn to the man on the other side. The voice of a man who just wanted to tell the truth captivated me. I found myself encountering a kindred spirit of sorts, someone who I felt could truly understand me. Of course, this is not a single occurrence, and I doubt I am the only person who feels this way about Bill Hicks. What separates Bill from most other comedians is that he is someone who was able to touch lives and really reach people in a way unlike anything that had been attempted before. Bill was an honest man, someone who just wanted to see a better world, and he knew he could make some change – and he just tried to make us laugh and have a good time along the way. If that doesn’t qualify Bill as a true hero and icon, then nothing else will.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is a brilliant film. It serves two purposes – as a chronicle of a fascinating public figure that can serve as a gateway into his other work for those who are not initiated into his unique and wonderful world, as well as serving to be a tribute to the man who so many people adore, with it being a compact yet comprehensive archive of the life of a man who tried his best to change the world. It shows him in all his faults and puts his flaws on display, but above all else, it is an honest and frank depiction of a man who has left a truly remarkable legacy. Bill Hicks was a truly amazing individual – funny, entertaining and above all else, truthful. He will be sorely missed, but the impact he left will live on forever. Perhaps it may be best to end this review with the same words that ended the film, which are in turn the final words that Bill left the world:

I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

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