BBC Video // 2009 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 28th, 2011
Generally, there are two kinds of standup comics. On one hand, you have "bit" comics. These are the performers who tell jokes or stories, with the punch line being the payoff. This includes most comics. On the other hand, you have "philosophical" comics. These are the performers who have a message and they use stories or observation to communicate some point. It's still supposed to be funny, but the message is at least as, if not more important than the laughs. Good examples include the late-era Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor. Very few comics, however, can combine these two traditions effectively. Carlin, for instance, would have some really funny observations about language (why do we get "on" the plane instead of "in" the plane?), and then he would have rants about war. Both were funny, but the laughs came a lot slower during the rants. Then along came Bill Hicks, the comic who has been the most successful at simultaneously melding these two modes. He could make a joke about a subject (usually controversial, like abortion) that was side-splittingly funny while also making the listener stop to evaluate his or her position on that subject. He never had the respect he deserved in American and died too young at thirty-two of pancreatic cancer. Because of his growing popularity as new listeners discover his back catalog and his enormous popularity in the UK, the BBC has released a documentary on his life and work: American: The Bill Hicks Story (Blu-ray). It's an informative documentary that won't surprise longtime Hicks fans, but the treasure trove of extras makes this release a must-own for fans of Bill's unique brand of comedy.
Using a variety of material (including archival footage of Bill, both professional and personal, along with animation on archival photographs and interviews with family and friends) American: The Bill Hicks Story traces the life of one of America's greatest comics. We start with his Southern Baptist upbringing in the suburbs of Houston, continue to his earliest years as a comic (sneaking out, as a teenager, to perform in a Houston comedy club), and on through his first trip to L.A. and triumphant return to set the Houston comedy scene on fire. Sadly, the film must end with the twin specter of Bill's looming career explosion and the cancer that killed him. In between we hear all the stories that make the Bill Hicks legend what it is.
I'm a self-described Bill Hicks geek. I've got all his official recordings, the book that collects his writings, the biographies, the standup DVDs, and over a dozen different bootleg records of various qualities. Consequently, there was little, if anything, for me to learn from American: The Bill Hicks Story. In fact, I found some of the absences more significant than the inclusions, but more on that later. However, even knowing all the information presented, I still found American fairly engaging. The trove of archival footage was interesting, including scenes of Bill interacting with his family, doing standup, and clowning around. Rather than presenting the usual talking-heads-plus-archival footage, American eschews interview footage almost entirely in favor of using interview audio over animated version of still photographs. It's an interesting effect that hasn't been done to death yet (unlike the usual zoom-and-pan Ken Burns style). This kept the film visually engaging while Bill's friends and family talked about his life.
For those not so versed in Bill's life and legend, American: The Bill Hicks Story does a fine job presenting his life as he lived it. There's a bit of whitewashing in a few places, but for the most part this 101-minute documentary hits the highlights of a career cut way too short. Because of this, the film serves as an excellent introduction to Bill for the uninitiated (though his standup is better for that) or a way for fans to learn more about a favorite comic without having to amass a large collection of biographical material.
This two disc Blu-ray release does an excellent job presenting the documentary. The 1.78:1 AVC-encoded image looks clean and bright throughout. The resolution seems a bit wasted for most of the film, as a lot of the photographs and archival film/video aren't in the greatest condition, but the contemporary interviews look razor sharp as expected. The DTS-HD 5.1 track does a similarly excellent job with the audio. There's extensive use of the music Bill Hicks helped write/perform (yes, in addition to being one of the greatest comics of all time, Hicks was also a very good guitarist/songwriter), and it comes through loud and clear, with a solid balance between music and the audio interviews. Some of the source material (like the few scenes from Bill's "last show") is of bootleg quality, but Hicks is always easy to understand. Subtitles, however, are included as well.
The extras are really what sell this set. In addition to the feature, we get three hours of extended interviews with the participants in which more aspects of Bill's life are addressed. Of most interest to fans will be the clips from Bill's audio journals, and the 30 minutes of rare clips from Bill's stand-up shows. The rest of the extras tend to address the movie itself, including some deleted/alternate scenes, as well as different animation sequences. There are also a number of featurettes that focus on Bill's family and friends, including a SXSW panel with Bill's friends, a trip with his family to Abbey Road Studios, and footage on the making of Arizona Bay. The number and quality of these extras is staggering.
Time to nitpick a little bit. First, if you're not a Bill Hicks fan, this documentary will likely not convert you. It's pretty laudatory, and does nothing to soften the controversy and difficult of Hicks' material. As a huge fan, I was a bit disappointed by some of the documentary's omissions. Sam Kinison, for instance, is featured in a few photographs, but isn't mentioned at all by name in the documentary. This is a glaring omission, because Kinison was the first superstar comic to really emerge from that Houston scene that nurtured Bill. He was also connected to the other somewhat iffy omission, which was the seriousness of Bill's drug problem. Obviously the filmmakers don't want to glorify Bill's drug use, but there are numerous stories out there of Bill (along with Kinison and others) taking cocaine so they could stay up for days to drink more. The documentary makes it seem like he had a bit of a drinking problem, it affected his work, so he quit, but there's a bit more to the story than that. On a technical level, the film didn't always make it easy to identify who was speaking at any given time. Because they used archival photographs (and not always the same ones) to identify speakers, it was sometimes hard to tell who was telling a particular story. Also, the choice of Bill's standup clips was sometimes rocky. About half of them were spot-on, demonstrating Bill in top form. The other half were either poorly chosen (because they were far from his best material) or poorly edited (so context was lost and the joke didn't make as much sense). I could see those without a familiarity with Hicks comedy being less than impressed by some of the standup shown here.
Bill Hicks is a giant in the field of standup comedy, someone who could make audiences gasp in laughter while challenging their basic beliefs. American: The Bill Hicks Story does a fine job showcases the man behind the microphone, even if serious Hicks fans will likely learn little. What puts this release over the top, making it easy to recommend for purchase, is the extensive collection of Bill-related extras, includes performance clips and extended interviews with his family and friends. It will never fill the hole that Bill's passing made in the world, but this release of American: The Bill Hicks Story reminds us all why he matters.
The truth is that American: The Bill Hicks Story is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage
* Alternate/Deleted Scenes
* Extended Interviews
* Bill Hicks