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Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Hicks In Stix Nix Pix: American: The Bill Hicks Story

Bill Hicks is a man with a church going up around him, and for some of us that doesn’t feel right. There are biographies of him; there is a book collecting his stand-up routines, interviews and articles; there are DVDs of his shows and about his life; the four albums he recorded during his life have been re-released and re-packaged numerous times, while other live shows (both official and bootleg) are also available. Funnier comedians and more popular comedians haven’t experienced nearly the range and depth of examination that Hicks has, nor have they received the same level of near-universal acclaim. So for some of us, the question going into American isn’t so much “will it be any good?” as it is “how much more hero worship does a dead guy need?”

For Hick’s “true” fans, the ones that believe he had a unique message to spread that went to the core of America and life itself, too much is never going to be enough. Parts of Hicks act played into this: for a comedian he certainly wasn’t above taking himself seriously when it came to the spiritual side of life. But blind hero-worship doesn’t really do him any favours either. Yes, he had a lot of insightful things to say about drugs and politics. He also made a lot of dick jokes. The dick jokes were usually funnier.

So for starters, it’s a relief that this film isn’t packed with celebrities talking about how amazing he was and how influential he is. Instead, this uses archival footage – Hicks recorded a lot of his work himself – interviews with family and (actual) friends, and bursts of animation to put together a comprehensive picture of his life. Like a lot of creative people, that life isn’t all that exciting: basically, he wanted to be a comedian a whole lot and he worked really really hard at it, while also getting stuck into booze and drugs for a while.

Unfortunately for those interested in the comedy side of things, Hicks’ persona requires that his material be largely presented as an amazingly ground-breaking surge of unspeakable material telling truth to power, rather than an offshoot of where American comedy was heading after the boom of the mid-to-late 80s. That’s not to say Hicks’ didn’t break ground in his own way, but in much the same way as Nirvana was the highly visible tip of a growing movement in music at around the same time, so too Hicks was a comedian who – after a lot of time touring and honing his material waiting for things to come his way – would have found America had come around to his way of thinking… if he hadn’t gone and died of cancer in 1994.

It’s possible to argue – not that this comprehensive but understandably uncritical documentary does so – that dying young and having his segment cut from the David Letterman show less than a year before his death were bigger factors in his posthumous fame than anything he actually said or did on stage. They shape the narrative of his life into something saleable: here was a comedian who, after years on the road and clearly no-longer giving much of a shit about saying anything but what he wanted to say, had come up with an act that expressed a lot of discontent with the way things were. Then, just when it looked like he was about to finally reach a wider audience with his act, corporate America censored him – proving his point about America - and he died.

Without those two things – the latter of which had nothing to do with his actual act (unless you think performing stand-up comedy gives you cancer), the former of which isn’t exactly unheard of in the world of American television – you couldn’t make a documentary like this. That doesn’t make it a bad film by any means. It just means that, on some level, it’s a film about a man who’s life is a good story, not the story of a man who led a particularly good life.

For example, when the press release for this film (currently showing at Melbourne’s ACMI) says “[Hicks] was poised to become a major voice in America when in June 1993 at the age of 31 Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer”, it’s not exactly a controversial statement amongst his fans (the "major voice" part that is - there's no debate at all about the cancer). Trying to predict what might have been is a mugs game, but the reality of comedy in America at the time of Hick’s death suggests he may have already peaked: the stand-up boom of the 1980s was all but over, and the biggest name in comedy at the time was Jerry Seinfeld. Unless Hicks made an unlikely move to television – Wayne’s World aside, comedy film in Hollywood wasn’t really thriving for most of the 1990s – he would have most likely found his US opportunities drying up. The next big thing in comedy wasn’t Hicks-style, “tell-it-like-it-is” material (even notorious Hicks-a-like Dennis Leary jumped off the comedy bandwagon for bad movies throughout most of the 1990s), but Friends; Hicks might have enjoyed George Carlin-like success to this very day, but Carlin died a year or so ago and no-one’s rushing out a movie about his (long & very interesting) life.

Put another way, one of the more obvious things to say about Hicks' stage act is that he liked to present himself as a cross between a rock’n roll legend (all those Hendrix references) and a preacher; the now all-but-forgotten 80s comedian Sam Kinison not only was an actual preacher before he became a comedian, he appeared on stage with rock bands and recorded below-average (but in one case, best-selling) singles. He said controversial things (one of his better-known rants was about how, instead of constantly sending food to Somalia, we should move the Somalians someplace where they wouldn’t constantly need food) and died young(ish) in a car crash in 1992. But he was also popular with the Andrew Dice Clay crowd of sexist frat boys, his crap music was high-profile (unlike Hicks’ below-par music on his CD Arizona Bay) and so hard to gloss over, and no-one tried to censor him. So no books, movies and adoring post-grave fanbase for you, Mr. Kinison.

None of this is to downplay Hicks’ skills as a comedian, and the parts of this documentary that focus on his comedy material are easily the most interesting. But it’s important to realise that for all his good work Hicks’ success from beyond the grave has more to do with factors outside his act, factors that enable people to package him as an easy symbol of rebellion, factors that don’t make him a better performer or human being. This is a solid, informative documentary that’s a great introduction to Hick’s work and full of footage that’ll be of interest even to long-time fans. It’s just a shame that a lot of other comedians who were (and are) just as funny and insightful don’t get the same treatment.

Anthony Morris

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