I was not exposed to the stand-up comedy of Bill Hicks (1961-1994) until last year. I had heard a lot about him, but his flame had burned so brightly and so quickly that most of his work came out across a four-year period before I was ten years old. I regret not having gotten to his work earlier, especially considering my early infatuation with Denis Leary, who essentially re-purposed half of Hicks’s playbook for himself. Having now been exposed to the fiery genius of Sane Man (1989) and Relentless (1992), I should disclose that my hopes were pretty high for Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’s American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009), so perhaps it was impossible not to come away disappointed.
American takes a personal approach to the subject of Bill Hicks. We are given glowing testimony from his parents, who raised Bill as a Southern Baptist in Houston, Texas. Bill was an odd kid, torn between a relgious upbringing by surprisingly openminded parents, yet confused by a hypocritical political system that lacked any guiding logical rationale. Bill quickly became a successful stand-up comedian while in high school, and we hear a lot of testimony from his childhood friends about his first gigs and his eventual migration to Hollywood.
Once in Hollywood, Hicks found lukewarm success as “The Clean Cut Comic.” He had solid performances at the Comedy Store but was unable to sell a screenplay on which he had been working for months. Frustrated, he eventually went back to Texas and found his voice by exploring drugs and alcohol, letting himself run with more taboo subject matter, and eventually embodying a rage that became his trademark. American explores how alcohol and drugs became a mixed blessing for Hicks, as he became more and more dependent on them before he was ultimately inspired to quit (and take up smoking!).
The biggest problem with American is the insularity of the portrait of Hicks. We are given testimony from his closest friends and family (much of which goes uncredited, so we’re not sure who is speaking for long stretches of time), but the filmmakers never take a step back and pause on Hicks’s larger cultural significance. Why not ask other comedians influenced by Hicks about his work instead of spending almost an hour of run time on Hicks’s descent into drug and alcohol use?
But the greatest sin of American is that it stands as a mundane portrait of incredible talent. Admittedly, there are some beautiful moments of disclosure, but they are so few and far between that it becomes difficult to justify the nearly two-hour running length of the film. If you find yourself on Netflix Watch Instantly looking hopelessly for something to watch, I’d recommend the Bill Hicks comedy specials over American. Even if you’ve already seen Sane Man, watch it again.