American: The Bill Hicks Story

November 5, 2010

Whether or not you’re familiar with Bill Hicks’ stand up this is a film you really ought to make the effort to go and see. American: The Bill Hicks Story, screening in Melbourne as part of an ACMI Long Play season, is a documentary about the late great man who changed the face of comedy and reinvented the term “stand up” for the better. Including familiar footage from some of his infamous routines as well as rare footage of his early days and interviews with his family and friends, American: The Bill Hicks Story is a timely reminder that when we laugh we also cry a little because the home truths that subversive “comedy” reveals are as sobering as they are welcome.

Straight forward and straight up, British directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ filmmaking style gets to the point quickly and clearly, just like Hicks did when he addressed an audience. Charting a simple but sound trajectory of Hicks’ physical and mental journey from his deep southern roots in Houston, Texas to an international stage across Canada, the US, Australia and the UK, American shows how someone who really cared about the words that came out of his mouth built a career out of progressive thought.

Not exactly a stranger to controversy, Hicks was more than just a “comedian”. Probably more politically astute than the entirety of any western country’s governmental administration, Hicks was on a militant mission to change the minds of the masses and, if he could, to quite literally shake consciousness into a populace who, at least in his early days, weren’t expecting to learn something when they turned up to hear his “routine”. But with such great intellect and wit there comes a price. It is not anomalous for someone so perceptive and affected by the problems of the world to find solace in substance abuse and self-destruction and so, we see too a side to Hicks we might prefer to forget, but it is one that we most certainly shouldn’t.

Inter-cutting interview footage of Hicks’ closest family and friends with the stock footage of his stand up routines, American gives its audience – newcomers and veterans alike – a view of how Hicks’ personal life simultaneously informed and was informed by his measurable successes and failures. A product of his own mythology, Hicks couldn’t abide the self-destructive nature of a society so filled with fear and hate.

Demonstrating perhaps more perfectly than even his own words were able, Hicks’ life – at least insofar as it is presented in the film – outlines a wonderful “how-to” guide for reaching enlightenment:  first look at yourself and where you come from, then examine the influences and the surroundings of which you are – whether you like it or not – a product, and finally, look and examine again. One thing that is always present in Hicks’ stand up is the central idea that everything in life, including life itself, is subject to limitation – except of course for the critical use of the human mind.

If you love Bill Hicks then get off your lazy ass and leave your living room to learn a little more about the man’s life and journey as it informed his work. And if you don’t know who Bill Hicks is – well, I’d still implore you to get off your ass and go see it. It doesn’t matter if you know everything or nothing about this man before you see this film: whatever Hicks’ material you come to first is the right one, because believe me, everything this man ever said is enough to change something in you for the better.

American: The Bill Hicks Story opens in Melbourne at ACMI Thursday November 4 and screens until Tuesday November 23.


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