Cult Films - Documentary
American: The Bill Hicks Story (film review)
Film Review by Dan Collacott
They say you should never meet your heroes, by the same token it can often be dangerous to get too close to the truth of a person. Biographical films are capable of shattering myths and deconstructing your lifelong heroes to the point where you are left feeling cheated and empty. ‘American’ actually proves that Hicks had fairly humble and comfortable beginnings, with strict yet loving Baptist parents, a supportive brother and a close set of friends who remained some part of his life until his tragic end. It is through their stories that we learn that Hicks’ genius was organic rather than being coloured by any one significant event or tragedy in his life. The film clearly highlights that his struggles with alcohol and drugs ultimately laid the foundations for the comic maelstrom and prophet he finally became. But if you wanted to know what made Bill Hicks tick, what fuelled his obsessive desire for the truth.... then ‘American’ leaves that open to interpretation.
Film creators Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas use a highly effective form of photographic/cut and paste style animation to set this film apart from other documentaries. The animation reinvents the events that are presented chronologically by the talking heads, keeping you at the heart of Hicks' life throughout. As a result you are immersed visually into Hicks’ school days, his amateur comedy circuit touring, struggles with alcohol, right through to his reinvention, obsessions with winning over the US public and his untimely death from cancer.
Creators Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas make economic use of over 200 hours of archive footage and photographs they pulled from Hicks’ TV work, film captured by his brother Steve and those taken from Hicks’ own almost obsessive collection. The animation and ordering of the archives meant the film makers took six years to fully realise their vision. In spite of this Harlock spoke of how he never grew tired from watching Hicks in action and even after the screening he still felt his words never lost any of their impact.
Although both creators managed to channel the true cult of Hicks, they only briefly acknowledge his rock star status in the UK. They mitigated this and other questions regarding gaps in Bill’s life by describing how they had to sacrifice many interviews and stories about the him as they wanted to maintain the momentum and time line of his story without taking it into directions that would deflect too much from Hicks himself. We also hear nothing of his loves and relationships, although Thomas did state that Hicks last girlfriend had tragically passed away and two of his other long-term girlfriends had remarried and didn’t want to appear in the film.
‘American’ is quite a daring title from a man famed for questioning everything his country did from the first Gulf War to how the authorities dealt with Waco, even producing footage of himself burning the US flag, only to argue that the whole point of being an American was having the right to do so! Both creators explained the title was to get the film attention, and that ultimately Hicks’ search for truth and ability to question and examine what it was to be American, was a true form of patriotism.
In the Q&A at the end of the presentation Steve Hicks phoned in to add his praise and express his satisfaction at how the film had turned out, which resonated loudly as Steve seemed to be quite central to the film and Bill’s life in general.
I discovered Bill Hicks via the 1996 Tool album Aenima which as a tribute features quotes from his ‘One Good Drug Story’ set and ‘Arizona Bay.’ I came to this film wanting to fully embrace the cult of Hicks and find out how he became described as the comedian’s comedian and possibly one of the most important leftfield, controversial and thought provoking comedians that ever lived. In many ways the film succeeded in doing that. In truth you don’t have to have any previous interest in Hicks to find ‘American’ to be a touching and inspiring film.
As a biography and documentary it succeeds in providing the film goer with a balanced and sugar free account of the comedian’s demons and genius.