If there's an edge to comedy, Bill Hicks snorted a line off of it. A multi-faceted firecracker of a performer, his life was cut short, just like firecrackers on a normal person's budget. Hicks was a normal person who had a huge problem with the way the U.S.A. runs itself. He asked serious questions about the ways its citizens react to everything under the sun. And he liked to imbibe on the finer things in life. Nothing should be more normal. Let it phase no one that American: The Bill Hicks Story was released by BBC Home Video.
"Ultimately, he died zealously clinging to all he fought for, one of the greatest goddamn patriots this country has ever seen." That quote from Mack Rawden's theatrical review sums things up so perfectly, I'm gonna grub it and watch Hicks' specials on other DVDs. Kidding, bitches. I'm here because Bill Hicks is a comedian worth a documentary. I won't be here for the Jerry Seinfeld or Larry the Cable Guy documentaries, because I'll have sliced my throat open using those broken DVDs. There's a thick fucking line between a famous comedian and a special one. It has nothing to do with Hicks dying early, either. Kinison was hilarious, but wasn't special. Hedberg came close. If Lenny Bruce's aggressive hard-on detached itself, lay dormant for years, and relocated to Texas, it would have become Bill Hicks, mid-career.
American does us the favor of avoiding such namedropping and keeps the story on the evolution of this tortured genius. It's definitely evolution, because God only exists on the stage. And Hicks may not have been a full genius, but he knew how to keep intelligence showcased, even when objectivity died of smoke inhalation. Less concerned with on-stage performances, directors Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock are interested in dissecting the path of the Southern boy whose passion for stand-up superseded all else. Nearly archetypical, Hicks' life is inspiring with cautionary tale morals for fans to ponder.
Mother Mary and siblings Scott and Lynn Hicks, best friends Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth, and David Johndrow, and comedy scene compadres John Farneti, James Ladmirault, and Andy Huggins. These are the stars of this documentary, other than The Man himself. Describing Bill's childhood up until his dying days, this frank and interesting group shares a wealth of anecdotes and insights about what they think made Bill such a creative engine of comedy. Staring in clubs in his mid-teens with Dwight, Hicks had many years to hone the onstage persona that Denis Leary would later get much grief for ripping off. Of course, while lesser comedians rose to the spotlight, Hicks remained underground.
Rather than take anyone's word on anything, Hicks experienced and mastered things for himself, leading to years under three influences or another. Instead of becoming ruined, he then conquered sobriety, leading to the most productive years of his career. But he rarely had a bad word to say about drugs or drink afterward. They allowed him to expand his own horizons and gain control of the constant rage that gripped his subconscious. Nobody gets madder than a Texan, say what you want about New Yorkers. Hicks ended up becoming both.
Using the extensive collection of photographer Johndrow, directors Harlock and Thomas snipped and chopped hundreds of photographs, layering them to create near-3D animations that complement the stories being told. And of course, there's much live footage here to both laugh and cringe at. Emotional, but never maudlin, American is meticulously biographical, something rarely afforded to stand-up comics. Until Carlin's comes out, this is the classic to be judged against.
I've never learned so much about a person from a Blu-ray. Despite my lack of adjectives, my opinion is that everything here needs to be watched. No exception, lazy Americans.
With some repetition, the three hours of "Extended Interviews" crossing both discs could stand alone as a less imaginative, but no less intriguing, documentary. Sequential and separated by subject, these dozens of humorous interviews come from everyone in the film. Dwight Slade shares more about his youth with Hicks, joking about their parents, school, and the acts they'd written. Mary talks about other hijinks her son got into. Fellow comics talk about his substance abuse and reformed sobriety. See? Just like the movie, but much more in depth.
All these featurettes! "Austin Panel at SXSW" has the directors and a few family and friends answering questions for fans. "Dominion" is a revisiting of the place where Hicks recorded the "Revelations" special. "Festivals in the U.S. and U.K. with the Hicks" follows the Hicks and filmmakers getting positive reactions at showings on both sides of the globe. Steve Hicks tells us, in "Hicks at Abbey Road Studios," about Bill's cassettes of acoustic songs getting professionally remastered. "Kevin Shoots His Film in L.A." is about Kevin Booth's fascinating "American Drug War" documentary. "15th Anniversary Tribute" gained international audiences to celebrate Hicks' performance in London, and his legacy. Dwight and John Ladmirault share their insights on comedy in "Comedy School." Dwight performs at a comedy club in "Dwight in London." "The Making of Arizona Bay" gives the album its artistic dues using Booth's words and studio footage of Hicks playing the songs. "The Ranch" visits the safe haven outside of Austin where Hicks, Booth, and co. would go for a relaxing and intoxicating step away.
Supplemental footage! This is where you'll notice the gigantic difference between Blu-ray and Home Video. There are over a dozen deleted/alternative/early scenes from the film. Most are stories from interviews, if you can imagine, but all have the photo-animation that the movie does, and some are alternate animations. A treasure trove lies in the "Rare Clips" section, which shows Hicks live (in rough quality) at a large handful of venues, along with a really old skit Bill and Dwight shot as teenagers. There's also a video of Hicks standing outside Waco, talking about the Branch Davidians, which he felt strongly about. There are two "Audio Journal" clips from 1981 and 1992 of Hicks speaking freely into a tape recorder for a few minutes, and a fascinating 30-minute audio interview with British high-schooler Nick Doody from 1992. Finally, a cool trailer.
Bill Hicks died in 1994, when I was 11 years old, and has done more in his death than I probably ever will while I'm alive. That's depressing in more than one way. Fortunately, American is here to connect the dots between the brilliant specials that have been released over the years. Just pay attention. That's all he really wanted.