American: The Bill Hicks Story, 2009.
Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas.
Photo-animated documentary on the life of comedian’s comedian Bill Hicks.
Now here’s an odd fish. A film about the life of Bill Hicks that’s roughly half as vitriolic, hardly anywhere near as controversial, and barely a fraction as funny as the man himself.
American, devised by animators/directors Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock, relies on extensive interviews with family and close friends, interspersing their recollections to narrate a overly drawn out, rambling story about the life of a comedian. A comedian who, on the evidence of the stand-up material displayed here, was clearly a quick-witted, darkly hilarious and fiercely individualistic man.
Sadly, the only evidence that such a man existed and that his name was Bill Hicks lies in the aforementioned excerpts of live stand-up material, which are few and far between. The bulk of the film is taken up by Hicks’ family and friends, taking us through a living, moving photo album of his life.
Well. They might be living, moving photos if cardboard cut-outs counted as life and their jerky, side to side shaking counted as movement.
This ‘photo-animation’ dominates all of American (excluding the odd stand-up clip or rare home video snippet) and boy does it get irritating. Any glimmer of introspection, any prospect of a thoughtful moment is utterly demolished by a crude CG puppet show that masquerades as animation.
Granted, these visuals give the viewer a strong sense of place and time. We’re always certain where and when we are in Hicks’ life. The trouble is that we don’t care. A fascinating and somewhat tragic life is dealt with in the most generic and skittish fashion as the family and friends spout forth old chestnuts and clog up valuable screen time with mushroom anecdotes that go nowhere and provide no punchline, and certainly no insight into Hicks the human being.
Dedicated Bill Hicks fans will get considerable pleasure from the rare early footage of his highly successful teenage career. These thoroughly enjoyable clips reveal a Hicks the world might hardly recognise, but for his wry delivery and refreshingly intelligent approach.
American gives a fairly comprehensive account of the facts and events surrounding Hicks, but it seems oddly oblivious to the power behind a good documentary, which is people. People can be fascinating; people can be engaging; people can tell a story. Photo montages don’t quite have the same effect.
That Hicks is dead and can’t be interviewed is no excuse – he befriended and influenced an entire generation of comics; American shuffles this potential goldmine of documentary material into a confounding Hollywood walk of fame style sequence. We’re forced to watch names like Steve Martin, Jay Leno, and even David Letterman float past, wondering why we aren’t seeing these guys sat in a chair, cracking jokes, waxing lyrical about how Hicks changed the comedy scene forever. That would’ve been a documentary worth seeing.
The film attempts to cover Hicks’ alcholism and depression with glancing, careful strokes, but even Hicks’ worst mistakes and indiscretions are glossed over and dealt with in the crudest fashion possible, thanks again to the ill-judged cut-out photo album approach.
Thankfully, American finally and definitively grounds itself in Hicks’ overriding humanity and clarity of vision, making a better case for Hicks’ ongoing legacy in the last five minutes than it managed in the preceding ninety five.
It seems that Bill Hicks has regrettably joined the pantheon of cultural icons whose genuine worth is too often lost amongst overdone sentiments, hero worship and post-mortem publicity. Just as the life and work of Jimi Hendrix casts a long shadow over every boy who picks up an electric guitar, Bill Hicks’ unshakable label as the comedian’s comedian looms over any young comic who picks up a microphone. American sets up Hicks as the be-all and end-all of modern comedy, and it just doesn’t fit. It seems too manufactured, too laboured, and worst of all, misses the point he was trying to make:
“It’s not enough just to make jokes. You gotta kick over some tables.”
- Bill Hicks, 1994
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
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