Wednesday, October 5, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas, 2011)

Bill Hicks existed and continues to live on at the fringes of mainstream acceptance, to the point that the titling of this biographical documentary seems less a insight into the comic's thematic focus than a reminder to the citizens of his home country that he was actually one of them. You wouldn't have known it during his life, and few seem to know it now; it's fitting that this film, title and all, was made by two filmmakers from Britain, where Hicks arrived an instant megastar in 1991, barely three years before his death from pancreatic cancer. But he died a legend in some circles, a mythical entity of uncompromising truth and savage comedy that has only expanded with time. In the aftermath of George W. Bush, so many fans have projected upon what Hicks would have had to say about that period in time that Hicks himself likely could never have lived up to the expectation had he beaten his cancer.

That places a weight on the shoulders of American that the film could never bear. As hagiography, it won't convert anyone unfamiliar with Hicks, and the fans will know almost all of the footage the directors collected by heart. Once the film establishes how Hicks grew into the comic who emerged in the late-'80s like the wrath of God come to pass judgment on Reagan's America, it ceases to offer insights, reveling in the skill of this brutal, hilarious man—"comedian" seems less accurate than the phrase, to steal from Mel Brooks, "stand-up philosopher"—with a sort of greatest-hits package.

Taking stylistic cues from the film adaptation of Robert Evans' memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture, American makes up for sparse footage of Bill's early life by animated photographs that give three dimensional movement to still images. Digital collages match talking head reminiscences not only with settings but by cutting various facial expressions from old photos to reflect the tenor of remembered conversations, breakthroughs, and struggles. Intriguing and striking as this style is, it cannot hide its purpose: to make up for massive gaps in usable material to show from the first 25 years or so of Hicks' life.

Still, for a time this does not matter. The lack of video material from Hicks' childhood is to be expected, and the portrait his friends and family paint of an angry but inspired kid helps contextualize the comic's stage persona. The filmmakers craft a vision of a boy so reserved and defensive of his abilities that he never learned how fine his parents were with his abrasive style until well into his adulthood, a kid who bonded with friends and planned whole careers with them behind his locked bedroom door. This secretive, caustic young man aligns eerily with the destructive social commentator later seen screaming and rolling around on-stage, and photos of a teenage Hicks are instantly recognizable as him, but then they would be for a man who never got to grow old.

My favorite stretch of the documentary charted the first stage of Hicks' comic career. I was surprised to find that not only did he start out as a clean comic—fans of his will know how baffling the very notion of this is—but that he nearly enjoyed mainstream success out of the gate. Tapes of early material overflow with jokes about typical youth subjects like parents, but you can hear Hicks' incredible grasp of flow and rhythm early on, talents that would serve him well later when he learned to spin lengthy diatribes that only occasionally floated into a punchline yet kill with their precision and pacing. Obviously he's still an average comedian at this stage, but it reveals something about the nature of the system he later railed against that he nearly broke out with this safer material before substance abuse shaped the angrier performer who would live on in infamy. As is so often the case with artists, drugs and alcohol helped unlock Bill's talent (loosening his more uptight persona into the bitter, honest ranter he became), then sidelined his career, then provided an even bigger inspirational boost when he got clean. This is a clichéd tale of artistic growth, but clichés can be true, as they obviously are here.

Once it sets into Hicks' rebirth into the firebrand known and revered by pockets of fans today, American treads water in its final hour, half-heartedly attempting to keep providing personal insight but largely ceding to the performance footage, most of which has already surfaced as complete concert vids to sate voracious fans looking for any spare drop of the man when he left behind but a few albums. It's all stuff we've seen, and even those close to him approach the material as if fans, discussing how surprised they were he exploded in the UK and Ireland and bemoaning his controversial final appearance on Letterman, where his whole act was cut by fretful producers.

Perhaps the greatest revelation American has to offer is just how intangible and symbolic Hicks has become, even to those who grew up with him. When the film reaches that point of no return for Hicks' cult of personality, even his parents speak of their son in a generalized way that caters to his public memory instead of his private one. Only the pained perspectives of friends belatedly told of his cancer offer any unique angle on the final years of Hicks' life, but otherwise people speak of Bill Hicks the Iconoclast instead of Bill Hicks the friend and son. It's amazing to see that, for a man who will almost certainly never be anything more than a minor cult icon, Bill Hicks can command such awe that even a collection of clips everyone familiar with Hicks will recognize are presented as the Gospel scrolls. But if Hicks now exists as a cult deity, then American serves no real purpose, and its fleeting moments of new information cannot disguise how empty this exercise in hero worship is. It's not that I don't understand the appeal of Hicks—I'm one of those people who has fever dream fantasies of him ripping the early 21st century to shreds. But as much as I appreciate someone caring enough for Hicks to make him the subject of a biography, the nature of his legacy is such that any film on him will feel at once belabored and overdone yet incomplete and narrow. Still, if life is just a ride, as Hicks used to say, American isn't the worst way to use one or two tickets.

1 comment:

  1. If I understand your argument correctly, I suspect I fit the gap between hero worship and indifference you point out here. I didn't know all of the stage-footage off by heart when I saw this film. In fact, for me American served as a kind of primer on the man.

    Which meant that collecting the choicest cuts from his sets, plus the recollections from family and friends, definitely served a purpose. I would agree that the film offers an incomplete biography -- details dry up as soon as we move away from Texas. But that's a consequence of a specific decision the filmmakers made: to tell the story of Hicks's life through others, rather than use an 'objective' narrative voice. What that means is that the viewer gets a very different account of Bill Hicks to the one other (I assume) discussions / documentaries would provide. What's revealing is just how ordinary, hard-working, family orientated and American Hicks was -- an facet of his character quite difficult to reconstruct from his stand-up persona.

    What I missed from this (being a Hicks newbie) was exactly the broader context that only professionals, historians and fans could provide. I wanted more on what Hicks took from Woody Allen or Richard Pryor, how and why his stand-up worked, where he got his ideas from, what his philosophy was. But the film decided to forgo all that, I suspect because there has been enough talk about this already stuff already. But in terms of the specific, limited remit the film set for itself, I think it fulfilled it very well.