The Psychotronic Film Society screens American: The Bill Hicks Story Wednesday at the Sentient Bean.
As a documentary film, American: The Bill Hicks Story is thorough, entertaining and extremely well-made. Filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have crafted a loving and engrossing biography of the Georgia-born standup comedian, who died in 1994 but has developed a cult-like posthumous following.
Three years in the making, American "animates" thousands of still photographs, interweaving them with home movies (from the Hicks family's early days in Texas) and footage of the comic onstage during his glory years. It is fast-paced, and never once feels like one of those stodgy A&E Biography profiles.
I never got along with my dad. Kids used to come up to me and say, "My dad can beat up your dad." I'd say Yeah? When?
The film is narrated by the people who knew him best - family members and fellow comics, mostly. Nobody famous.
That's a good thing, because putting the likes of Jay Leno or David Letterman (staunch Hicks supporters) into the film, as talking heads, would only distract from the warm personal stories told by his friends and loved ones.
(Leno was a Hicks advocate back in the club days, but Hicks later turned on his old friend with an hilarious rant about how the Tonight Show host sold his soul when he started shilling for Doritos. It's not in the movie, but you can see the clip on YouTube.)
So who was Bill Hicks? He was an extremely intelligent young man from a middle-class Southern Baptist family, and although he loved his parents and performed reasonably well at school, had a tendency to challenge authority and buck the status quo.
He was also a wise guy.
At 19, just out of high school, Hicks became the most consistently successful standup comic in Houston. So he moved to Los Angeles in search of fame, fortune and all the rest. In 1987, when he was 25, he relocated to New York City - after alcoholism and drug abuse had almost killed him - and spent the last seven years of his life as a (sober) road comic.
I'm glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, "My God! I love everything." Yeah, now if that isn't a hazard to our country ... how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we're all one?
In '92, Rolling Stone named him the year's Hot Standup Comic; he subsequently toured the United Kingdom, where he found the most appreciative audiences of his career (even Hicks himself had no easy explanation for that one). Radiohead sang his praises.
Hicks died of prostate cancer on Feb. 26, 1994.
Here's the thing: If you're not already a card-carrying member of the Bill Hicks Fan Club, this film isn't likely to sway you.
I'm not sure he was the most brilliant comedian who ever ranted into a microphone; in fact, I'd never heard of Hicks until recently, when I started reading about this movie.
No question he was a special writer and performer. He was irreverent, hyper-intelligent and tempered his rage at the inequities of American life with a sort of focused spiritual calm. He was damn funny. He loved cigarettes, and women, and he despised ignorance, and hypocrisy, and organized religion, and anything that smacked of capitalism.
Go back to bed, America, your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed America, your goverment is in control. Here, here's American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up, go back to bed America, here is American Gladiators, here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their f---king skulls together and congratulate you on the living in the land of freedom. Here you go America - you are free to do what well tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!
American is a reverent portrait, filled with touching minutiae about the comedian's life but woefully short on his actual material, so much of which was brutally funny.
Frankly, it's a little too reverent: If it meant I could see a few more minutes of Hicks' onstage riffing, I could easily have sacrificed the detailed reminiscences of .... say, fellow Houston comic Jimmy Pineapple.
Psychotronic Film Society
American: The Bill Hicks Story
Where: The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave.
When: At 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 15