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American: The Bill Hicks Story (2010, USA)

18/03/2011

Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas

In 1994, on the cusp of the career breakthrough he had chased for over fifteen years, William Melvin Hicks succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of thirty two. Like the rock’n’roll stars he admired his premature death was the final step to ensure a man already hailed as a comedy god would pass into legend. American: The Bill Hicks Story is a documentary that reconstructs the life of this highly influential giant of stand-up.

Pieced together from a combination of interviews with his family, closest friends and colleagues, numerous photographs spanning not just his career but his lifetime and footage of the master at work (all set to a soundtrack drawn from Hicks’ own Marble Head Johnson music project) it’s a touching and worthy tribute to Hicks.

It works not only on the level of pure documentary, proving a detailed biography of the whats wheres whys and whens but also as a heartfelt narrative that ultimately left me very emotional.

Thirty two is too young to die, but judging by this it is a case of the candle that burns twice as bright lasts half as long. By the time he passed away Bill had achieved more in his short time on Earth than most people would achieve in ninety years. The early segments, detailing the drive he possessed as a teenager, playing his first open mic gigs at the age of fourteen and his endless determination to succeed are inspirational.

As he grew up and experienced more from life we are shown how he developed from a fresh faced, clean living, obscenity free teenage comic into the raging philosopher that would bring so much influence to bear in the world of comedy long after his death.

Visually it’s kept interesting with the endless array of often beautiful photographs chronicling his life, photographs that are skillfully manipulated in montage sequences to illustrate the tales related by his loved ones. This technique proves to be highly effective, the combination of animation and still photography possessing a slightly surreal beauty.

It’s in the candid interviews where its power really lies though. I challenge anyone to listen to his mother recount the last few months of his life, having to endure the slow decline of her youngest child without being reduced to tears. I’m not ashamed to say that even my trademark stoicism gave way to rolling tears before the film was finished.

It doesn’t matter if you are familiar with Bill Hicks or not, you will be by the time you have watched this film. As a fan of his stand-up I enjoyed learning more about his life but I think that it’s been constructed so skillfully that it would be of interest to anyone, not just his fans. Warm and affectionate but at the same time unafraid to show the unvarnished truth it is a beautiful film. I’m sure Bill would have been proud.

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