American - The Bill Hicks Story DVD review
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Another chance to meet arguably America's best-ever comedian. If we can find him...
As a Brit who remembers Bill Hicks' meteoric rise in the UK in the wake of his Montreal appearance in the early nineties, there's an inevitable hint of proprietorial smugness that we 'got' possibly the greatest comedian of all time in a way that his countrymen couldn't. At least not then. Even Hicks admitted as much; when his acerbic and often surreal routines were flying over the heads of Oklahoma audiences in small-town comedy clubs, Hicks was treated in Britain as one of the most prestigious members of the new wave of 1990s comedy. At worst he was the Johnny Cash of post-Reagan American satire, but most of us acknowledged him as the king, the vanguard leader of a new psilocybin-inspired humanist consciousness - an American messiah whose unflinching search for the truth came in the form of side-splitting sermons.
It's all rather pat, in a way, and if you're not a fan of Bill Hicks yet, you might well smell a rat at the tidal wave of enthusiasm (and even tears) for American - The Bill Hicks Story. If you're already a fan of Hicks, you probably know what he'd think of his slow apotheosis over the last seventeen years since his untimely - but quite mythic - death from cancer at the age of 32. He'd have a gag routine that would cut through the love gushing towards him from post-Hicks disciples, even if he needed that love. That was just how he was. Dying at 32 and struggling in his own country while other nations idolised him? Bullshit; you can almost hear him hissing that out through that familiar Texas rictus.
That's not to criticise Hicks, this excellent documentary or the belated national feeling of recognition for the merits of his work. But ultimately a doc about Bill Hicks has to either preach to the converted or to the curious; the converted already know the story, and the curious can only get enticed by the rumours they've heard about the man. And so ultimately, neither can be satisfied by such an attempt.
For those of us who've read the biographies, the books and the writings and transcriptions of the great man, American can't rise far above the level of a beloved road that we've been down many times. If we really have to stick to these Christ parables that Hicks seems to now inspire, American is like finding a new gospel that deals exclusively with what Jesus ate for breakfast. Hicks expounded the fundamental core of his truth in the course of 17 years of evolving stand-up material, unpolluted and undiverted by Hollywood or any of the other pitfalls that might have killed his light with excessive success.
And American does not have the time to show us much of that material. Consequently, it's rather - and frustratingly - like watching a DVD about how food tastes. The almost hysterical reaction to the movie back in May seems more involved with the ultimate recognition of Hicks' importance in culture, than anything about the man that it is able to transmit.
That's the negative, and a limitation that no documentary on Hicks is likely to have been able to overcome. The positive is that American is a dazzling and worthwhile tribute to the life of Hicks, accomplished with unusual montage techniques and a welcome twist on the standard documentary style.
Photos from Hicks' past come to life in three dimensions, like a photo-real cartoon, as we hear - but rarely see - the people who accompanied Hicks for the ride. Adherents will notice omissions, and some very unfair ones too, such as the importance of Rodney Dangerfield to Hicks' story, and the almost biblical lack of any mention of the comedian's love-life. At an hour and forty-one minutes, there was time to cover these and other matters not trivial to knowing who Hicks was.
If you're a fan, you definitely need this two-disc release. Even with the paucity of Hicks' own stand-up material, some of what is provided constitutes previously unseen live footage and insight into Hicks. If you're not a fan, American can only be the gateway to your conversion, and you won't find the answers until you've heard and seen his filmed and taped stand-up, which are separate purchases.
A great deal of the detail that will fascinate fans is to be found in the extended interview sections in the extras on this two-disc edition. The run-time on extras is a generous five hours, mostly taken up by the extended interviews with Hicks' colleagues, admirers, friends and family. The 'Austin Panel' featurette runs at 9 minutes, and provides further memories of Hicks, while the 'Dominion Tour' extra on disc 1 finds some of the makers of the C4/HBO co-production of Hicks at the Dominion Theatre revisiting the location in London to talk about how it came together.
'Festivals in UK & USA with the Hicks' finds members of the comedian's family travelling initially to the launch of American at the BFI, which gathering echoes the film's feeling of a great gathering where the speaker of honour is absent. In the five minute 'Hicks at Abbey Road Studios', the family remaster some of the comedian's prolific music sessions at the most famous recording studio in the world, interspersed with brief Super-8 footage of Hicks playing the guitar.
The three-minute 'Kevin shoots his film in LA' deals with one-time Hicks collaborator Kevin Booth, who shot camera on Hicks' homespun press-coverage of the Waco siege. Booth has taken some of the themes that interested Hicks and himself into a film about the American war on drugs, four years in the making.
In the seven-minute '15th Anniversary tribute', the Hicks preside over a celebration in London marking the 15th anniversary of the comic's death. 'Dwight in London' finds Hicks' childhood friend and double-act collaborator Dwight Slade making some interesting observations about British reactions to Americans at a pretty good stand-up gig in the UK. 'Making of Arizona Bay' features Kevin Booth recalling the making of Hicks' comedy/rock crossover album, released in 1997, and features footage (with audio) of Hicks at work on the piece.
'The Ranch' features Kevin Booth's memories of the place in Fredricksburg, Texas, that Hicks and Co. used as their magic-mushroom launch-pad.
In all, the extras are fascinating, if sad on account of who isn't there...
Extended Interviews Part1
Austin Panel at SxSW
Extended Interviews part2
- Festivals in UK & USA with the Hicks
- Hicks at Abbey Road Studios - remastering Bill's tracks
- Kevin shoots his film in LA
- 15th Anniversary tribute
- Comedy School
- David Johndrow's photography
- Dwight in London
- Making of Arizona Bay
- The Ranch
- The older kids
- Bill calls Dwight
- Early Bill & Dwight recording
- Ninja Bachelor Party
- The goal of comedy
- tragic love lives
- Houston House
- Mary & Jim watch Bill
- Flying to New York
- Writing jokes.
- Alternative scene - Last ranch trip
- Alternative scene -Teenage rebellion
- Alternative scene - - Wimberly
- Annex - Girls
- Annex - Eating
- Annex - Scary Movies
- Annex - Mom comes to town
- Funny bone - UFO
- Indianapolis1 - Dad's a goober
- Indianapolis2 - Jews killed my lort
- Outlaws get Religion - Jesus is pissed
- Outlaws get Religion - School rivalry
- Sacremento - Housekeeping!
- Sane Man - Bill you don't fit in
- Sane Man - Non smokers
- Spellbinders - In hospital
- West Palm Beach - Childbirth
- West Palm Beach - Did God make a mistake?
- Bill & Dwight - Bat & ball
- Bill at Waco
- Ninja Bachelor Party trailer
BILL AUDIO JOURNAL CLIPS
- Bill lonely in LA, 1981
- Bill leaves New York for LA, 1992
- Audience Reactions Trailer
American - The Bill Hicks Story is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK Monday 27th September.
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