Wednesday 16 June 2010

REVIEW: American - The Bill Hicks Story

I was amazed when the friend who came with me last night to see the documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story told me he had never heard of Bill Hicks. How could that even be remotely possible? Hicks is a legend, is routinely placed near the top of any list of greatest ever stand-up comics and was also far more popular in the UK than in the US. That is certainly how it seemed in the early 1990s when I was a student and Hicks was playing to 2000 capacity crowds at the Dominion in Tottenham Court Road, crashing around inside the American psyche with a chainsaw and a bag of mushrooms. Furthermore, his reputation has only grown over the years that followed his early death from pancreatic cancer, aged just 32 and at the peak of his career.

Admittedly, I'm a long-time fan and having recently re-read Cynthia True's biography American Scream, much of the story of Hicks' early life and career was familiar. British film-makers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas are clearly fans too, but they do not shy away from the picture of Hicks as a comic who became an angry, bitter alcoholic and who only found his true voice when he finally kicked the booze. But what makes this film really stand apart is the revolutionary animation technique Harlock and Thomas employ, using photographs provided by Hicks' friends and family. It took a while to get used to, but alongside the candid contributions and some very shaky VHS stage recordings, it brought the story to life in a way that most documentaries, dependent on a series of talking heads, have often been unable to do.

What this excellent film also managed to convey was Hicks' energy, both on-stage, in his relentless touring and in the desire to convey his message as he realised that death was drawing nearer. It was a one that had become an increasingly political rebuke to America, over the storming by the FBI of the Branch Davidian cult's Waco complex in 1993 and particularly the first Gulf war. And a decade after Hicks' death, when we had another Bush in the White House and more US troops back in Iraq, much of his material was as fresh as ever. Here he is in full effect, on stage in London:

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