American: The Bill Hicks Story

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Overview

Bill Hicks was a comedian, though that term hardly describes the full range and impact of his work. Hicks used comedy a vehicle to express both rage and hope, to satirize what he saw as faulty in contemporary society and to promote his singular notion of a better world. Growing up in Houston, TX, Hicks began performing at the age of 15, and after earning a large and loyal following in Texas, he moved to L.A. and began working the comedy circuit nationwide. As Hicks maintained a punishing touring schedule often ...
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Overview

Bill Hicks was a comedian, though that term hardly describes the full range and impact of his work. Hicks used comedy a vehicle to express both rage and hope, to satirize what he saw as faulty in contemporary society and to promote his singular notion of a better world. Growing up in Houston, TX, Hicks began performing at the age of 15, and after earning a large and loyal following in Texas, he moved to L.A. and began working the comedy circuit nationwide. As Hicks maintained a punishing touring schedule often performing 250 to 300 nights a year, he kept honing and refining his act, combining acidic political and social commentary with tales of his sexual obsessions, surreal visions of the world around him, and experiences with drugs. In 1990, Hicks performed in the United Kingdom for the first time, and there he became a star, though he failed to attract the same sort of audience in the United States. A few years later, Hicks seemed on the verge of a commercial breakthrough in America when he learned he had a rare and virulent form of cancer; he died on February 24, 1994, at the age of 32. Filmmaker Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas chronicle the life, art, and philosophy of a singular performer with the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story. Featuring interviews with Hicks' closest friends and family members, the film uses digital animation to bring his standup routines to life and create a visual complement to his comedic vision. American: The Bill Hicks Story received its world premiere at the 2009 BFI London Film Festival.
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Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Mark Deming
Once a comedian dies, their work doesn't generally have much of a shelf life. If a comic was wildly popular, you might see clips of their routines pop up on television or their recordings reissued on CD after their passing, but if a comedian hasn't broken through to mainstream popularity, when they lose their life, that's generally the end of the story. So the mere fact that someone has produced a full-length documentary about Bill Hicks more than 17 years after his death in 1994 indicates he wasn't an ordinary funnyman. And he certainly wasn't -- Hicks was a great, frequently hilarious performer, but he was a social satirist, political commentator, and philosopher as much as a guy who cracked wise Hicks once described his comedy as "Noam Chomsky with dick jokes". The message he struggled to pass along remains timely often unfortunately so years after he was silenced, which is why his cult following has continued to slowly but surely grow in his absence. At his best, Bill Hicks was the bravest and most innovative American standup comic since Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, and for good or ill, unlike them his message was never watered down by legal battles or the whims of Hollywood. Filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas offer an in-depth look into the life and art of Bill Hicks in their documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story, and given the singular tone of Hicks' work, it's fitting that they've taken an unusual approach to telling his story. While most documentaries on entertainers consist of a parade of performance clips interspersed with taking-head interviews, American uses a blend of old photographs and digital animation to give the film a look and feel more akin to a graphic novel come to life, and the final product resembles a dramatic narrative more than the journalistic approach that one might expect. The technique certainly suits the trajectory of Hicks' life and career. Born in the Deep South and raised hard-shell Southern Baptist, Hicks and his family moved a great deal before settling in Houston, TX, when he was seven years of age. Hicks became fascinated with standup comedy as a child, and by the time he was 15 he and his best friend, Dwight Slade, were writing and performing routines that earned them professional gigs at local comedy clubs. Hicks went solo only when Slade's family moved away, but he was determined to make a career for himself in comedy, and after a brief sojourn in Los Angeles, Hicks became a major figure on the Texas comedy scene while also touring extensively across the United States. A turning point for Hicks came when he began experimenting with psychedelics in his early twenties after abstaining from drugs and alcohol all his life. Hicks' perspective on the world around him changed considerably after tripping on mushrooms, and his act became more personal, examining the nature of truth and the failings of humanity; a bit about a frustrating interaction with a waitress could turn into a rant on anti-intellectualism in America, and a routine on smoking would detour into an analysis of drug laws. Hicks also began drinking, and found that liquor loosened his tongue and allowed his darker thoughts to rise to the surface, which became a double-edged sword as he developed a serious alcohol problem that hampered his performing skills. Eventually, Hicks quit drinking, and after performing at a comedy festival in Montreal, his set was seen by a British television producer, who was very impressed by what he saw. One of Hicks' performances at the festival was videotaped and fashioned into a special for British TV, Relentless; audiences in the U.K. embraced Hicks and his aggressive but intelligent material, and he soon became a star there. His reputation was slowly but surely beginning to grow on the other side of the pond as well when Hicks was diagnosed with a virulent form of pancreatic cancer. He continued to work after the diagnosis, his shows possessed by the fire of a man who knew he literally had nothing to lose by saying what he felt, and he created some of his most remarkable and philosophically far-reaching comedy in the last months before his death in early 1994 at the age of 32. Hicks' material stands up to repeated viewing and he was much admired by his peers in comedy, but American: The Bill Hicks Story isn't a "Bill Hicks Greatest Hits" video or filled with major stars testifying to his brilliance. Those looking for either should check out the DVD Bill Hicks Live: Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian, which features three different performances, including the Montreal set that became Relentless, as well as a tribute special produced for Comedy Central that features many of his peers discussing his work. Instead, American tells the story of the man as his friends and family knew him, and through their eyes we study his ideas and his creative process. There's more than enough of Hicks' comedy in American to give a clear picture of his style and ideas, but it's firmly integrated into a narrative of how his humor changed with his vision of the world, and as his philosophical and political outlook evolved, so did his work and Hicks clearly embraced the notion of psychedelics as a path to enlightenment rather than a medium for getting supremely wrecked. The film also concentrates on Hicks' personal story at the expense of some well-known aspects of his career. Hicks' feud with Denis Leary whose early standup work bears an uncanny similarity to classic-era Hicks, both in terms of material and delivery isn't mentioned at all, and his final appearance on David Letterman's talk show, which was cut entirely from the October 1, 1992 broadcast after Letterman and network censors became worried about the material, is only referred to in passing. The censorship of Hicks' performance prompted a lengthy profile in The New Yorker by John Lahr, which drew much media attention to Hicks, though by that time he had been diagnosed with cancer and could do little to capitalize on it. Mary Hicks, Bill's mother, appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman in January 2009, where Letterman belatedly aired Bill's 1992 set and apologized for the incident after taking responsibility for the editing. Ultimately, American: The Bill Hicks Story doesn't set out to tell us everything there is to know about Bill Hicks. Instead, filmmakers Harlock and Thomas have opened a window into the man who created some unique and enduring comedy, and by extension, the ideas that prompted him to his mission to tell truth to power by playing comedy clubs across the American landscape. Early in the film, we hear a clip from an interview in which Hicks declares that comedians are among the very few people who are paid simply to talk. It seems that Hicks saw this as both an opportunity and a responsibility that he took seriously, and this film takes Hicks' story just as seriously, even as the directors confirm just how funny he could be, and American is a powerful testament to a creative mind whose influence grows greater with each passing year.
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Product Details

  • Release Date: 9/28/2010
  • EAN: 5051561001284
  • Original Release: 2009
  • Source: Ais
  • Format: Blu-ray
  • Sales rank: 85,915

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Bill Hicks
Mary Hicks Participant
Steve Hicks Participant
Lynn Hicks Participant
Kevin Booth Participant
Dwight Slade Participant
David Johndrow Participant
James Ladmirault Participant
John Farneti Participant
Andy Huggins Participant
Steve Epstein Participant
Technical Credits
Matt Harlock Director, Animator, Producer, Screenwriter
Paul Thomas Director, Animator, Cinematographer, Editor, Producer, Screenwriter
Rachel Barke Associate Producer
Sarah Bemand Consultant/advisor
Kevin Booth Score Composer
Mark Daniels Score Composer
Suzanne Gilfillan Editor
Marblehead Johnson Score Composer
Mark Lesbirel Associate Producer
Suhan Razzaque Consultant/advisor
Graham Smith Animator
Sarah Wilby Consultant/advisor
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