Swinging with a loaded theoretical bat: and other mixed metaphors

American: The Bill Hicks Story

on April 06, 2011 by Sara Vizcarrondo
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A celebratory doc about late comedian Bill Hicks, American: The Bill Hicks Story takes an inadvertent pratfall representing the comic in a way director/producers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas probably think is "fresh." A sort of comic prodigy, Bill Hicks made a mid-level name for himself in the '80s and '90s and, in the later part of his career, turned his comic skills to political use; in the process trading his American fan base for a British one. The doc is well intended, featuring plenty of interviews with friends, fans, colleagues and family, but it makes use of an unholy-looking photo animation technique that creates philosophical issues and is simply hard to look at. Numbers should be small as the comedian's fans, however many they may be in number, were active rather far in the past and the doc resurrects the spirit of the comic in ways that aren't entirely uplifting.

Bill Hicks would sneak away to Houston to perform at open mics until the clubs saw his moxy and started treating him like a fixture. All done under the nose of his strict, Southern Baptist parents, Hicks built himself the beginnings of a career and, when the call came to take the job seriously, he left home to follow it. Surviving as a comic took its toll in predictable ways: drugs and alcohol did their damage, as did the grueling economy of acceptance and rejection among the ever-moody crowds. What looked like growth didn't feel like growth (a situation the film represents well) as touring and low wages contributed to a creeping burnout he resolved by self-medicating. At the pinnacle of his career, he went to the woods to do shrooms with friends (I wish I could make that sounds better) and realized he needed to get off substances and turn to political comedy. He no sooner committed to this trajectory that he was diagnosed with cancer, and the remainder of his ferocious career was marked with heated and aggressive comedy that was less funny than pointed but louder and more passionate than anything that'd come before it.

Directed by British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, The Story of Bill Hicks marks one of many films made by foreigners about artists they consider uniquely American (see Kasper Collin's My Name is Albert Ayler or Göran Olsson's forthcoming Black Power Mixtape, both Swedish docs). This foreign view of the subject is anthropologically useful, however the film's photo animation technique transforms family photos (used extensively to fill in historical plot holes) into something that resembles zombie-resurrection, and also have the unfortunate side effect of suggesting historical revision. It's a potent subtext the filmmakers clearly aren't of and it undermines a fair bit of what the film accomplishes as a treatise on a comedian who's purpose and poignancy resemble heroism in timing but in not so many other ways.

Distributor: Variance
Directors/Producers: Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: April 8 NY, April 15 LA

 

Tags: Paul Thomas, Matt Harlock
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