It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than 15 years since comedian and satirist Bill Hicks died of pancreatic cancer. An icon of the stand-up circuit and a favourite of students, left-wing politicos and, well, anyone with a healthy interest in life and a good sense of humour, Hicks has left an enduring legacy and is regarded as one of the very best, despite never really being recognised in the US during his lifetime. He was certainly held in higher regard here than in his native America - a recent Channel 4 poll (April 2010) of the top 100 comedians of all time placed him fourth, two places higher than the last time the broadcaster ran this poll in 2007.
Perhaps that’s why the best and most comprehensive documentary film about Hicks’s life and works had to be made by a couple of Brits, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, both BBC factual programming alumni. Unlike many other biographical docs, their documentary, American: The Bill Hicks Story, eschews the standard approach of interviewing all and sundry, instead focusing on the thoughts and memories of those who knew him best, his family and closest friends. Such talking heads as his mother, brother and childhood best friend offer an illuminating snapshot of what Hicks was like off stage and how his comedy developed, often sharing intimate memories of what it meant to really know this ‘outlaw comic’.
Unsurprisingly, the clips of Hicks doing what he did best, performing in front of an audience, raising hell about the likes of the hypocrisies of mannered societies and the corruption of the human condition, particularly in the US, are the most engrossing, and gut-bustingly funny too. Even the most dedicated fan will not have seen all of these clips (some video, some audio), but all of them will, hopefully, bring the requisite smile to their face. Clearly, Hicks fans will garner the most from the rarer clips, but even the most jaded comedy fan should find at least a few classic anecdotes to tickle their funny bone.
Harlock and Thomas have certainly put a lot of thought into the film and it works on almost all levels. However, while the interviews with his family and friends and the unique stand-up footage engage throughout, the documentary’s presentation does not quite nail the punch line. By manipulating thousands of private photographs, including those taken by Hicks himself, the directors have created animated links that, while initially stimulating, ultimately become wearing. Some will revel in this innovative approach, but others may start to wish for a little more variety. Equally, while there’s plenty of footage of Hicks performing, there’s always the frustrating feeling that they could have shown a little more, or perhaps slightly longer clips, such is Hicks’s ability to elicit laughs.
It’s a sad fact that, at the age of 32, Bill Hicks went before his time, thus denying us his distinctive insight (or perhaps that should be incite) into such topics as the election of George W Bush, Guantanamo Bay, the war on terror and the economic collapse. However, at least with films such as American: The Bill Hicks Story, his spirit can be kept alive and perhaps even inspire the next generation to challenge authority, speak their mind and tell a few damn good jokes.
And by the way, if anyone reading this is in advertising or marketing - kill yourself!