I can remember it as clear as if it were yesterday. A little after 9 a.m. where I was sitting in my college Film Studies class waiting for the morning ‘catch-up’ to settle down and the lesson to begin. It was a typically cold February morning in 1994; my closest college friend entered the room, put his backpack on the ground next to my well-worn book bag, slumped into the chair next to me and told me. Bill Hicks was dead. The most prescient, socially conscious, aware, volatile, dark, vulgar, and passionate comedian that America had seen in a great many years – and has not seen since – had been quieted by pancreatic cancer at the age of 33. A legend had died – and in the years since his passing, his precious few comedy albums have found evermore audiences, but the impact of this man’s comedy and vision had not been widely understood. American: The Bill Hicks Story seeks to change that.
American: The Bill Hicks Story
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 101 Mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Video: MPEG-4 AVC 1080i High Definition
Audio: DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio
Subtitles: English SDH
Release Date: June 7, 2011
Review Date: June 22, 2011
“Here's another idea that should be punctured, the idea that childbirth is a miracle. I don't know who started this rumor but it's not a miracle. No more a miracle than eating food and a turd coming out of your butt. It's a chemical reaction and a biological reaction. You want to know a miracle? A miracle is raising a kid that doesn't talk in a f*@#ing movie theater . . . I'll go you one further, and this is the routine that has virtually ended my career in America. If you have children here tonight—and I assume some of you do—I am sorry to tell you this. They are not special. I'll let that sink in. Don't get me wrong, folks. I know you think they're special. You think that. I'm telling you—they're not. Did you know that every time a guy comes, he comes 200 million sperm? Did you know that? And you mean to tell me you think your child is special? Because one out of 200 million sperm connected . . . that load? Gee, what are the f*@#ing odds? Do you know what that means? I have wiped entire civilizations off of my chest, with a grey gym sock. That is special. Entire nations have flaked and crusted in the hair around my navel. That is special. And I want you to think about that, you two-egg-carrying beings out there with that holier-than-thou, we-have-the-gift-of-life attitude. I have tossed universes, in my underpants, while napping. That is special.”
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
On that seemingly normal morning, the world changed. A man I'd never met had passed away and his passing was deeply saddening. I could hear the professor come into the room. She asked the class to take their seats, but I couldn't. I stood up and delivered a spontaneous, perhaps rambling eulogy of a man I only knew through a few routines; a gifted comic and prescient seer of political, celebrity, and religious faults and fallacies – a man for whom hypocrisy was heresy, liars were Lucifer-light, and fat-cats were the festering fools of evil. A piercing, often combative comedian as comfortable stripping away the layers of American greed and ignorance as he was wading knee-deep in lewd and lascivious arenas to lead audiences into fits of laughter. His act would tear into the material mediocrity of the world he saw around him.
American: The Bill Hicks Story is as much a biographic of the man as veneration of the message and amusement he gave the world via smoke-filled, dark venues, and the bright lights of grander stages. Through a mosaic of interview with those who knew him best – his friends, family and comedian colleagues, this documentary seeks to understand the man who has become legendary for his contributions to stand-up and more importantly, his potent ideas.
Bill Hicks grew up in Texas, son to dedicated Southern Baptist parents, feeling manacled by the small-town sway of life and rebellious against what he viewed as normal and benign. Hicks' father passed away shortly before filming began, but his mother Mary, brother Steve, big sister Lynn, and close-friends Dwight Slade – with whom Bill began his stand-up career, Kevin Booth, David Johndrow, and others share stories of Bill’s first steps on the comedy road, and the evolution of his routines from funny parental observations to hilarious and piercing political and social commentary.
Misunderstood by most American audiences, Bill Hicks was considered a hero in many European nations where the sharpest satirical tongues were lauded above all else. Hicks' lamented the ease at which American audiences took offense. What began as a resentment of the “suspension of reason” he felt pervaded his parents, Hicks' love of laughter led to a meteoric rise on the comedy circuit. He was still a teen when he first took the stage, and just a few years later, he had moved to California where he quickly began headlining comedy clubs where many greats had played. Success was a double edged sword, the eventual weariness of the road and the exhausting life of a comic took its toll, fueled by an insatiable alcoholic bent and the drug teased investigations of his own consciousness.
Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have produced one of the most entertaining, meaningful, and important documentaries of the past decade, presenting the material with energy and verve. Through animation creatively crafted from still photography, delivering with wit and pace these images set to the voices of the interviewees. The reverence shown to Hicks' comedy and influence does not outweigh the shadows of addiction that cast darkly upon his short life. American provides a treasure trove of home movies, unseen photographs, and insights into the innocent and frustrated adolescents of Bill Hicks. From his beginnings as a rebellious young man, enamored with rock n’ roll and the power and responsibility of comedians with their mouths against the microphone, he grew to understand his purpose and need to talk to audiences. He evolved into a wise and aggressive comedian railing against the banality of rote lives, the mirage of freedom in America (as he saw it), and the slide into cultural mediocrity he saw his beloved country quickly sinking into.
American: The Bill Hicks Story is absolutely stunning; a gloriously produced, magnificently reverent portrayal of one of the greatest comedians to have ever taken the stage. It is a meditation on the discovery of self, talent, fears, vulnerabilities, failure and success – and a descent into the drug and drink fueled comedic darkness and evolution that transpires during a man’s ascension from that darkness.
The Video: 4 out of 5
BBC presents American: The Bill Hicks Story in 1080i High Definition, framed at 1.78:1. Commensurate with the wildly different sources – such as poor quality home video from the earliest days of Hicks' comedy – the image quality varies but the presentation of that footage is solid. Heavily grained low-light footage, worn VHS images, and images damaged by time and likely poor storage comprise the bulk of what we see. Animated derived from a great selection of photographs are clean and free of issues. This is how this film is supposed to look. Though some cleanup of original sources may have helped some, it is the very nature of these original and ‘raw’ sources that give this film its heart.
The Sound: 4 out of 5
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track presents the source audio material cleanly, Hicks' voice on his Dictaphone tape is expectedly a tad muffled but the interviews are perfectly crisp and the original music, from Bill Hicks band, gives a full-feeling to the audio. This isn’t reference audio for the punch or excelling surrounds, but does exactly what it is supposed to.
The Extras: 5 out of 5
The special features available on this 2-disc set are an incredible wealth of rare clips, extended interviews, featurettes and more. An astonishing assemblage of genuinely fascinating material – well beyond expectations.
- Thirty minute of unseen footage and rare clips from Bill’s career
- Three hours of extended interviews
- Bill’s personal audio journals
- Trailers & audience reactions
- Deleted and alternate scenes
- 1.5 hours of featurettes:
- Bill’s family visits Abbey Road
- Dominion Theatre tour
- 15th Anniversary tribute
- Q&A panel in Austin with Bill’s friends
- Comedy School
- Dwight in London
- Festivals in UK/USA with the Hicks
- The Ranch
- The Making of Arizona Bay
To me, Bill Hicks was the consummate Rock Star, but rather than wielding a six-string electric guitar, his instrument was a microphone through which his incredible voice was captured and carried to the world – a world that was only partly ready to receive it.
Bill Hicks was the quintessential patriot; the questioning citizen demanding more of his country than he felt it was giving. This documentary is both affectionate and revealing, but more importantly, it is a worthy chronicling of Bill Hick’s rise to prominence and how he crafted his voice that echoes as loudly today as the day he died.
“It's just a ride and we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money, a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.
Overall 4.5 out of 5