BBC Video // 2010 // 102 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // July 16th, 2011
Kicked ass. Took names. Changed the game.
Bill Hicks was a genius. A ferocious comedian with an appetite for asking the big questions, Hicks was tragically robbed from the world in 1994, aged only 32. It's correct to assume that Hicks' superstardom was only starting to blossom at that juncture, his stingingly truthful act and controlled stage presence having garnered him huge international acclaim. American: The Bill Hicks Story is a documentary that charts the life of Hicks from birth through to death, chronicling his career in the process. As a subject Hicks is endlessly fascinating, and the performance footage cut into the feature is undoubtedly entertaining, but on the whole American comes up a little short. The film is almost completely animated (floating heads take a backseat until the final 10 minutes), which marks a pleasant change of pace. However, the picture tends to glorify its leading man unrelentingly, and can only skim over his achievements softly during the tight 102 minute runtime.
Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas clearly believe what Hicks had to say was vital, reveling both in the man's humor and propensity for speaking his mind. Most of the entertainment that can be derived from American is purely Hicks based, watching the comic stomp and riff never ceasing to delight. American pays special tribute to Hicks's unimpressed stance on the American government, particularly their controversial handling of the infamous Waco incident. It's enjoyable to be reminded how brave and courageous Hicks was, the film painting a picture of utter reverence, refusing to besmirch the comedian's name beyond his well publicized battle with alcohol. I would honestly have preferred the filmmakers to have dug deeper into the Hicks stream of thought, potentially generating something disturbing, innovative or at least unknown. The fact American was made using the comic's family and friends probably complicated matters, but I can't help but feel the movie neglects to attack some of Hicks' less genial or at least conventional tendencies.
The aesthetic is bright, inventive but a tad irritating, certainly by the 30 minute mark its design has become a little jarring. I can understand the picture's desire to avoid the burden of talking heads (boring!), but a more directly human touch might have been welcomed in spots. Similarly American can only afford to recount its subject's life concisely and obviously, regularly failing to delve deeper into his jokes and revelatory social commentary. It's a competently assembled documentary, and one I advise fans of Hicks seek out, but there are too many flaws to truly mark it out as something great. Indeed due to its almost mawkish worshipping of Hicks, you have to ponder, would the notoriously cutthroat comedian have even liked it himself?
The two-disc DVD is loaded with extra features, outranking the film easily as the definitive Hicks source. The film's cartoony presentation is dropped, affording what largely comprises of interview footage from the people in Hicks' life a dosage of personality and warmth. There are over three hours worth of interview materials, taking both a meaningful glance at the professional and personal components of Hicks' growth as a stand-up. The actual making of the documentary is given much less time to breath in this assortment of invaluable content, although a piece that takes place at last year's SXSW festival is pretty illuminating. Some deleted scenes also feature in this tremendous package.
I'm not going to hide my disappointment here; American The Bill Hicks Story should be much sharper than it is. Still, the filmmakers have created something watchable, which is more than can be said for a lot of the current counterprogramming on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scenes