In the booklet included with the new Blu-ray "American: The Bill Hicks Story", Mary Hicks, Bill Hicks' mother, is quoted as saying "When he got sick, Bill wanted me to help him file all of his photographs, and he showed me Hendrix and Dylan documentaries. I said, 'Bill, why are you showing me all of this?' and he said 'In case someone comes mom, and they want to make one about me.'" After watching this documentary on the late and brilliant comedian one has to wonder if the film makers would have been better off consulting Mrs. Hicks on the basics of telling compelling stories. As fascinating a subject as Hicks unquestionably is, this documentary proves to be an extremely disappointing dusting over of Hicks' career combined with an irritating level of gloss and flashy editing techniques which show a lack of respect for the subject in favor of displaying art school editing prowess.
The problem in reviewing a documentary such as "American" is many fans of Bill Hicks already know the back story of his life and career. There have been very good documentaries and books focused on this subject that do a fine job of divulging personal stories and anecdotes, and there are many bootleg videos and even commercially available dvd's that show Hicks in action on stage. "American" chooses to pick from these readily available sources to show the viewer the kind of comedian and voice he was. There are a few more rare performances shown, and those clips are definitely the highlight in this film, but for the most part one can't help but feel that old news is being rehashed constantly.
All of the interviews in "American" are with Hicks' family, friends, and fellow local comedians at the time, and while they are all very eager to tell stories about Bill, it's hard not to notice the complete and total lack of attention that is paid to some of the bigger names that respected Hicks. People like David Letterman, Jay Leno, and the New Yorker's John Lahr are ignored in this documentary, and if anyone had a significant impact on Hicks' career it would be these three. This total lack of recognition of the bigger names surrounding Hicks' story make the interviews with his family and friends that much more vacant. Not to say that his family and friends are not interesting, because they are, but when there is so much more history and voices being ignored it makes it hard to counteract other points of view that may not be so biased.
What leaves the biggest distaste in the mouth about "American" is the crow-barring of the editing and graphical style. The film makers obviously had a gimmick up their sleeves with how they wanted to show this story, and it takes so much away from the subject that by the end of the film you're left wondering if they film was about Bill Hicks or this new and wacky editing tool. All of Hicks' family photos are interspersed with cartoony and slick visuals that flat out annoy. During the entirety of the film the viewer will desperately wait for a moment that is just raw video footage instead of Hicks being portrayed as a cartoon figure reciting his comedy. More than that, though, you really have a palpable feeling that more time was spent in the editing and animating room than focusing on Hicks and his legacy. There is a ton to be said about Hicks by many different voices, and when you gloss over this fact with flashy animations all substance goes out the window. It's hard to imagine Hicks would be happy if this documentary ended up being the only film based on his life.
Bill Hicks is a precious subject. There is a reason why more and more people each year flock to his mind and words. He was an incredibly sensitive, hilarious, thought-provoking, and engaged person. This documentary does little to reflect that, sadly. It's hard to give a two-star review to a subject that is so brilliant, but any time more attention is brought to Hicks can only be a good thing. There are many other ways to discover Hicks and what he had to say, and this documentary should not be one that you consider. Start with his albums. "Dangerous" first, then "Relentless", followed by "Arizona Bay", and finally "Rant In E Minor". These albums are the only introduction you will ever need. As far as other documentaries about Hicks go, the Comedy Central produced "It's Just A Ride" is far more competent and telling than "American". It features interviews with both his friends and family as well as the more famous names that were there as Hicks rose to fame. I will also point out that the blu-ray edition features hours of extra content including interviews and performances which make this purchase a little more justifiable.
Understanding Hicks is sitting down and giving him your full and undivided attention. Part of the problem with "American" is that Hicks is reduced to soundbites and one-liners that were never Hicks' forte. When Hicks came on stage he told stories, weaving them together with other stories, coming back to them, referencing earlier jokes, and accosting his audience with declarations of love and concern. You cannot wrap up the Bill Hicks experience in a soundbite. Experiencing Hicks live meant that you had to ingest, absorb, and ruminate. Otherwise you just wouldn't get it. The quality of "American" is on par of a passing fan without much interest in the comedian; someone who may chuckle a bit at his stories but hold no interest in Hicks beyond a surface level curiosity, and ultimately not understand the bigger picture. While I can accept this probably isn't the case with the film makers here, they certainly don't convince to the contrary. Bill Hicks' message deserves much more than that.