Eulogizing A Groundbreakingly Angry 'American'

Originally published on April 8, 2011 10:47 am

"Logic will set you free." That's not much of a punchline, but by the end of his too-short career, comedian Bill Hicks had long since transcended simple joke-telling.

It was bits of personal philosophy like that one, often focused on humanity's capacity for complex reasoning and his feeling that Americans were unwilling to use it, that came to typify his increasingly thought-provoking (but still hilarious) act. Perceptions of freedom — and how he believed Americans tend to neither understand nor seek this thing that's so central to our national identity — were a frequent theme that drove his rants about politics, religion, and culture.

That kind of material made it difficult for Hicks to become a terribly big star in his own country, which is why it comes as no surprise that the first filmed overview of his life — he died in 1994, at age 32, from pancreatic cancer — should come from two British directors, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas. While Hicks languished on the small-club circuit back home, he became a major celebrity in the U.K. for articulating his own disappointments in his homeland. Titling the film American is a term of admiration from the Brits here: Hicks' act expressed an aspirational patriotism that mirrored foreign audiences' hopes that the world's most powerful nation might live up to its promise and potential.

There's a great deal of promise and potential in the idea of a documentary study of Hicks. Unfortunately, American falls short of anything beyond the ordinary. Part of the problem is the difficulty in resisting the temptation to squeeze the comic's story into the familiar confines of a VH1 Behind the Music-style template.

All the familiar beats are there: The prodigious talent rising from humble beginnings. Initial success that came too fast, too soon. A drug- and alcohol-fueled crash that inevitably led, by way of sobering up, to a Phoenix-like rise to even greater artistic heights.

The filmmakers attempt to sidestep conventionality with an unusual visual approach that takes photographs from Hicks' past and manipulates them into a cut-and-paste style of animation, illustrating the stories told in voiceover by 10 of Hicks' closest friends and family.

But talking heads are still talking heads, whether you can see them or not, and the visual flourishes amount to a fresh coat of paint on the same old house. There are interesting facts here about Hicks' childhood in Houston, becoming a teen comic who could hold his own at an adult comedy club, and the drive for success that led him first to Los Angeles, then back to Houston after he decided to let the world come to him. But there is precious little live footage from these early years, and the voices telling stories while Harlock and Thomas animate conversations, car trips and drug trips begins to get a little dry.

Lucky for them, in Hicks they have one of comedy's most charismatic rock-star personalities. His performances after he got clean are well documented, and this footage livens up the second half of the film considerably. It was during this period that he became the legend he's remembered as: a confrontational performer whose anger and indignation were outshone only by his intellect, a comedian who had the courage to challenge audiences to think as they laughed.

One of Hicks' friends says that being a great comic is about having your outer voice match your inner voice. In that way, seeing Hicks onstage is a better look at who he was offstage than it might be for many performers. But it still feels like there's a lot missing from this profile. It's heavy on facts, but short on insight — a surface-level look at a performer of extraordinary depth.

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