American: The Bill Hicks Story Directed Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

American: The Bill Hicks Story
Directed Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas
(BBC/Warner)

The late comedian and satirist Bill Hicks may be the subject of more books and documentaries than any American stand-up in the last 20 years…and rightfully so.

When most comedians were making hackneyed references to the perils of airline food and banal allusions to gender and cultural differences, Hicks was advising marketing agents to kill themselves, railing against the American military industrial complex, and dissecting biblical hypocrisy. Director Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas’ “American: The Bill Hicks Story” is the most thorough, in-depth, and engaging example in the ever-expanding Hicks archive.

Featuring concert footage, photographs and extensive interview with Hicks’ mother, siblings, and childhood friends Kevin Booth and Dwight Slade, “American” seamlessly cobbles together a comprehensive biography. With a visual style reminiscent of Nanette Burstein’s “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” “American” is as visually striking as it is funny and emotionally beguiling.

Hicks, the son of an auto employee and a Sunday school teacher, began performing standup at 14 and largely languished in obscurity for nearly 20 years despite brash material and continuous touring. Just as Hicks was becoming well known in Canada, Europe and at home, the comedian was stricken with pancreatic cancer.

Since his death, the DVD concert films “Bill Hicks Live” and “Sane Man” have served to supplement Hicks’ extensive audio catalog. Likewise, The mini-documentary “It’s Just a Ride” relied heavily on Hicks’ fellow comedians to tell his story while books such as Cynthia True’s “American Scream” and Kevin Booth’s “Bill Hicks: Agent of Evolution” helped provide a narrative to Hicks’ raucous stage persona.

While True’s text was more comprehensive than “American” and Booth’s text is decidedly more personal, “American: The Bill Hicks Story” is a great supplement for neophytes and longtime fans alike. The film itself is tautly structured and engaging, and the handful of extras on this DVD help elucidate Hicks’ life and his relationship with friends and family. The only thing that seems to be missing from this package is a commentary from the film’s directors or Booth and Slade.

For Hicks fans, “American” is a great complement to the growing wealth of material now available on the comedian; to its credit, the documentary also works well as an introduction to one of the most highly regarded and influential American comedians of his generation.