American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)

13 Oct

When he died from pancreatic cancer in 1994, Bill Hicks entered the pantheon of pop culture martyrs. These ephemeral beings that shone so bright, these fallen idols sacrificing body and soul for their art, form the basis for a Cult of Death that has becomes a lucrative industry. We all know the names of these saintly, ill-fated figures whose gifts were as much a blessing as a curse. Their work and, perhaps more importantly, their image looms large in the collective imagination. They have become shorthand for those seeking authenticity or distinction.

We’ve all read the biographies and seen the sanitized Hollywood biopic and we think we know them; because so much of their lives reside in the public domain. They will never fall prey to the inducements that have halted many a promising artist; they will never grow stale, complacent or repetitive, they will never become grotesque parodies of their former selves.

Hicks’ brief life has been so thoroughly pored over that it seems inconceivable any new facts can emerge in ‘American’. Is it merely a hagiography, a public relations exercise endorsed by those who wish to brand him the Ultimate Outsider?

The most striking feature of ‘American’ is its visual style; various photographic techniques are used to create a unique backdrop, stylishly animating the content of the interviews. Still images are brought to life and localities recreated, given a depth of focus by raising the subject from the background, somewhat in the manner of a pop-up book. Consequently, ‘American’ has a vivid playfulness that sets it apart from the staid, humourless format of so many retrospectives, capturing the essence of Hicks’ sardonic worldview.

The most remarkable thing about Hicks’ upbringing is just how prosaic it was, he grew up in a comfortable suburban home with Southern Baptist parents. But Hicks was possessed of an inventive mind that saw how ripe for parody his home and school life was. He began to do stand-up at the age of fifteen; comedy was a means of escape, saving him from the drab respectability he dreaded. His lifelong love/hate relationship with Los Angeles began with a brief, frustrating move there, whereupon he succumbed to the loneliness and uncertainty that is the city’s default setting.

It was on his return to Houston that his work underwent a marked change, due in no small part to his entree into the world of heavy drinking and hallucinogenic drugs. His stage presence became more confrontational, his material darker, he started dressing in black and perfected the ‘Kinison scream’. As a consequence, some of his earlier fans deserted him and he was no longer asked to perform on TV. Ignored in his own country, Hicks was embraced by audiences in Canada and Britain, where his coruscating attacks on American foreign policy chimed with popular sentiment.

Of course, all of this is common knowledge to anyone who has read Cynthia True’s ‘American Scream’, or the panoply of other biographical works that have sprung up in the years since Hicks’ demise. ‘American’ presents no real new information, but it does offer a fascinating document of Hicks’ development as an artists and a person, charting his passage from a lovable teenage comic doing impressions of his dad to a prophet of doom kicking against the spiritual malaise of the hoi polloi, the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, the poltroonery of the political class and the cupidity of Corporate America. The home movie footage shows a different side to Hicks, outlining just how carefully cultivated his on-stage persona was, he is relaxed and personable, a world away from the ‘man in black’ he was renowned as.

Hicks’ credo was ‘love not fear’, something that is often forgotten by those who dismiss him as an ‘angry’ comic. There was always a motive behind his ire, something that set him apart from contemporaries like Sam Kinison. Fanciful as it may sound, Hicks’ ultimate ambition was to share what he’d learned from his drug experiences, which he believed had set something free and put him on the path to nirvana. The mystical bent of his later material is informed by his drug experiences, providing a perspective that is aeons ahead of the blandly observational shtick that prevailed on the circuit. This insight instilled in him a state of oneness with the universe, but put him at odds with audiences seeking more pedestrian fare.

He saw through the reactionary bluster of the Reagan/Bush years, with its adoration for the military-industrial complex and veneration of flag and fatherland. He wanted his audiences to be able to see that they were being misled, imploring them to evolve with him. But his call went unheeded; America rejected his vision; he was viewed as a renegade for speaking out against the first Gulf War.

Like Richard Pryor before him, Hicks refused to be browbeaten, to adapt to the demands of television executives and movie producers. He explored subjects comedians usually shied away from or dealt with in a facile manner. He travelled to the darkest recesses of the subconscious, challenging preconceptions with purity and profundity.

Was Bill Hicks ahead of his time? He’s still ahead of his time.

We need Bill Hicks more now than ever. Heaven only knows what he would have made of the madness that has ensued in his absence.

‘American’ is the definitive portrait of man whose impact on the development of comedy is incalculable.

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3 Responses to “American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009)”

  1. bpsmith May 30, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    I thought that this was fucking brilliant. Thanks for posting it on FB for all to find.

    And yes, the world needs Bill now more than ever and just like the 1990’s the call will most likely go unanswered since dollar signs look so pretty to folks. They sell out so you don’t ya think?

    What a waste. Okay well, I best get back to making the waffles.

    BP

    • Part-Time Infidel May 30, 2011 at 11:53 pm #

      Hello, thanks for your kind words. There are a few comedians carrying on Hicks’ legacy; Jamie Kilstein being the best, in my opinion.
      All The Best
      PTI

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