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Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
Bill Hicks, Various
Writing Credits:

The greatest comic of his generation. Kicked ass. Took names. Changed the game.

American: The Bill Hicks Story brings to life the amazing true story of one of modern culture’s most iconic figures. Much more than just a comedian, Bill Hicks has become an inspiration to millions around the world. As a rebellious teenager, he discovered that comedy was a way to break all the rules, but then he found it could also open people’s minds. Bill’s comedy challenged the injustices of life head on, but his uncompromising approach met with conflict in America and it was instead on the international stage where he found fame. In 1993, on the verge of wider success, Bill fell ill with terminal cancer, but his timeless material has lived on, revered by comedians and audiences alike as the man who changed comedy forever. Taking documentary to a new level, American uses interviews, archive footage including many unseen performances, and stunning animation to bring Bill’s inspiring story to life, told for the first time by those that knew him best.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$5.872 thousand on 1 screen.
Domestic Gross
$90.275 thousand.

Rated PG-13

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 101 min.
Price: $29.99
Release Date: 6/7/11

Disc One:
• Extended Interviews
(Part 1)
• Two Featurettes
Disc Two:
• Extended Interviews
(Part 2)
• Eight Featurettes
• 14 Deleted Scenes
• Rare Clips
• Bill’s Audio Journal Clips
• Trailer
• Previews

• Booklet


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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American: The Bill Hicks Story [Blu-Ray] (2009)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 11, 2011)

While never a superstar, comedian Bill Hicks earned a significant cult following – and continued to inspire much devotion even in the years after his death in 1994. A documentary entitled American: The Bill Hicks Story takes a look at his life and career.

American starts with a glimpse of Hicks’ childhood/family relationships and his desire to get into comedy. From there we follow his early local work in Houston, his move to LA, and the ups and downs he experienced on the west coast. Then we look at his return to Texas, attempts to hone his craft there, the impact of alcohol and other substances on his work, and a return to sobriety. The remainder of the documentary traces the additional evolution of his career, success outside of the US, and his demise at 32 due to pancreatic cancer.

To cover the story, American features a mix of folks who knew Hicks best. We hear from siblings Steve Hicks and Lynn Hicks, mother Mary Hicks, childhood friends Dwight Slade and Kevin Booth, photographer David Johndrow, and comedians James Ladmirault, Steve Epstein, Andy Huggins, and John Farneti.

Like most Americans, Hicks’ comedy made little impact on him. Honestly, I barely remember him as a presence in the 80s and 90s; I’ve heard a lot more about him over the last decade or so than I ever did during his lifetime.

I hoped to gain better understanding of Hicks’ work via American, and to some degree, I did. However, I think that spoke more to how little I’d seen of Hicks than it does to the material presented in this interesting but spotty documentary.

On the positive side, American provides a great roster of participants. We hear from folks who knew Hicks well, and they provide good insights into his life and perspectives. Watching the documentary definitely affords us a better feel for Hicks as a person.

But does it do much with Hicks the comedian and help us understand what made him so revered? Not really. Though we get a reasonable number of clips that show his live act over the years, these don’t add up to much in terms of real impact. Throughout the documentary, we’re constantly told how brilliant, insightful and astute Hicks was, but the clips don’t do much to reveal these qualities. A few funny and/or thoughtful moments occur, but I can’t say they display a comic of great brilliance; if Hicks qualified as such a comedian, those moments didn’t make the film.

Indeed, American may leave you more annoyed by Hicks’ apparent smugness and hypocrisy than anything else. For someone who railed against the system in so many ways, he shows himself awfully willing to engage in its “evils”. For instance, one routine consists of little more than his demands that anyone involved in advertising and marketing kill themselves, as he regards them as totally horrible and detrimental. But what about the people who market your concerts, videos, TV specials and CDs, Bill? Do they deserve to die, too? If you hate them so much, why not refuse to allow your wares to be advertised?

Hicks also complains about how “the system” keeps down real artists and ensures that nothing but mediocrity ever succeeds. But didn’t Hicks adore and admire plenty of famed artists such as Woody Allen, the Beatles and Richard Pryor? If “the system” won’t let anything other than crap do well, how did they make it in the business?

In truth, I think Hicks’ bitterness fueled a lot of his rants against the mainstream. For someone with such disdain for the entertainment business, he sure seemed distraught over his lack of fame in the US. That theme pervades American, as Hicks often bemoans his obscurity in his homeland. Given how negatively he viewed the tastes of his countrymen, I’d think he’d be happy so few of them liked him; shouldn’t that be a badge of honor? As it stands, Hicks seems somewhat hypocritical and suffers from a rampant case of sour grapes; I suspect that if he’d done better in the US, he wouldn’t have harped about the evils of showbiz so much.

This impression becomes even more apparent when we hear how much Hicks despised LA in the disc’s supplements. According to friends, he regarded LA as the heart of banality and mediocrity. Hmm… wasn’t that the town Hicks flopped in when he was young? Could that experience possibly have left him bitter? Nah – no way! I’m sure Hicks’ negative attitude toward LA is just him Speakin’ the Truth, not basic anger.

Add to that a real streak of self-righteousness. The impression of Hicks that American leaves is a man who endorses free thought – as long as it agrees with him. Believe the same as Hicks and you’re awesome; disagree and you’re a moron who he’ll relentlessly belittle. Coming from someone who apparently didn’t meet a conspiracy theory he didn’t like, the attitude grates.

I should make it clear that I can’t say how well these impressions represent the real Hicks. Like any documentary, American comes with its own viewpoint. It boasts great access to a roster of people who knew Hicks well, but that doesn’t make it objective.

Indeed, it probably means that we get a much less balanced take on Hicks because we only hear from those who were near and dear to him. There are no viewpoints from a distance, so the tone tends toward his greatness and not much else. Sure, it digs into his human foibles – mostly related to substance abuse – but it never provides a remotely objective feel for anything the man did. All of the participants are firmly on the Hicks bus and want to continue to promote the man as one of comedy’s all-time greatest minds.

Which maybe he was, but American makes a poor case for that status. As I said, I came away with some negative views on the man, but I won’t claim they’re accurate. Was the real Hicks as self-righteous and hypocritical as the one in the movie? Maybe, but I can’t claim to know this for certain. He may well have been much more open-minded and insightful than the guy in the film.

I think the movie’s format becomes an obstacle as well. While I appreciate its desire to avoid the standard “archival clip/talking head” emphasis, it tries way too hard to be arty and different. We get a never-ending montage of cut and paste photos/animation along with the standard archival material. The former takes old pictures and try to bring them to life. It doesn’t work; rather than immerse us in the action, the technique simply seems silly and gimmicky. It may be trite, but the standard format would’ve been more effective if just because it’s not as dopey and distracting.

At the end of American, you’ll feel like you know more about Bill Hicks the man, but you may not find much to make you interested in Bill Hicks the comedian. The movie doesn’t paint him as the great talent all claim he was, and some odd storytelling choices create a busy, goofy format. I’m glad that I know a little more about Hicks, but this is a flawed documentary.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C/ Audio C+/ Bonus A-

American: The Bill Hicks Story appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this Blu-Ray Disc. The 1080i presentation offered a mix of good and bad.

Like most documentaries, this one combined new material and archival footage. The vast majority of the latter looked pretty awful. Even professionally-shot video from the 80s and 90s tends to appear fairly ugly nowadays, and these elements didn’t violate that rule; none of the video footage of Hicks ever seemed better than mediocre, and much of it was blotchy, bland and blocky. This was made worse when we saw amateur material, so expect the archival clips to provide ugly images.

I expect that, though, so I don’t really mind it. As for the rest of American, it mostly consisted of montages that made semi-animation out of photos and other still elements. The occasional talking head bit showed up as well, but we got very few of those, so they weren’t a big factor.

The animated stills varied in quality. They usually displayed good definition, but motion brought some shimmering and jaggies into the mix, and the pieces could seem a bit blocky at times as well. Colors worked pretty well, though, and blacks were pretty deep and dark. I suspect a 1080p transfer might’ve eliminated some of the concerns, but they weren’t major. It was more than nature of the material that left this as a “C” image.

Like most documentaries, American went with an unambitious soundstage. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track favored music and dialogue, as both provided virtually constant companions. Speech stayed centered, while music displayed mild stereo spread; the songs also broadened to the back speakers in a minor way. Effects were a less important element, so they didn’t add much; we occasionally got an effect from the side speakers, but I noticed nothing from the surrounds and those components didn’t have much to do.

Audio quality was fine – well, except for some of the speech in the archival clips. Those old video shots didn’t just suffer from ugly visuals; Hicks’ routines also could sound rough and distorted. They were usually intelligible, though, and the interviews recorded for the documentary seemed natural and distinctive. Music was warm and vivid, and effects showed good accuracy. All of this merited a “C+” for an unambitious but satisfactory soundtrack.

Expect tons of extras across this set’s two platters. On Disc One, we find Extended Interviews Part 1. These fill a total of 58 minutes, 58 seconds and cover “Bill’s Early Life” (11:45), “Creating Characters” (7:07), “School Years” (23:14) and “The Comedy Begins” (12:52). Across these, we hear from siblings Steve Hicks and Lynn Hicks, mother Mary Hicks, childhood friends Dwight Slade and Kevin Booth, and comic James Ladmirault. The subject matter follows the segment titles pretty well, as we learn a lot about Hicks’ childhood, relationships and move into comedy. Of course, the full documentary touches on all of these, but the “Extended Interviews” give us a whole lot more information and add quite a bit to our understanding of Hicks’ early life.

Under Featurettes, we find two clips: “Austin Panel at SxSW” (10:21) and “Dominion Tour” (7:44). “Panel” shows a Q&A that involves Steve Hicks, Ladmirault, comic John Farneti, photographer David Johndrow, and director Matt Harlock. Harlock acts as moderator so we hear comments from the others. They deliver a few additional details about Bill Hicks and their experiences with him. Nothing great shows up here, but the featurette offers a mix of interesting notes.

“Dominion Tour” features remarks from Mary Hicks, Lynn Hicks, Bill Hicks: Revelations director Chris Bould and Revelations producer Charles Brand. We get some notes about the performance featured in a big TV special. This delivers a mix of decent details about working with Hicks and the shoot of the concert.

Disc One opens with ads for Sherlock Season One and BBC America.

Over on Disc Two, we start with Extended Interviews Part 2. This set fills two hours, one minute, 19 seconds and spans “Early Annex Years” (25:26), “Heading to LA” (14:48), “Back in Houston with the Outlaw Comics” (15:02), “The Dark Years” (11:08), “Going Sober” (11:39), “Performing in the UK” (7:07), “Diagnosis” (8:25), “Bill Tells His Friends” (16:38), and “Love, Laughter and Truth” (11:07). In these, we find comments from Farneti, Mary Hicks, Slade, Booth, Johndrow, Ladmirault, Steve Hicks, Lynn Hicks, and comics Steve Epstein and Andy Huggins. This collection picks up where “Part 1” ended, as we continue to learn about Hicks’ early career, related developments, growth as a comedian, various relationships, and death. The interviews continue to add nice insights into Hicks’ life and career, so they’re valuable additions.

Another batch of Featurettes comes here as well. We get “Festivals in UK and USA with the Hicks” (14:56), “Hicks at Abbey Road Studios” (4:29), “Kevin Shoots His Film in LA” (3:52), “15th Anniversary Tribute” (8:02), “Comedy School” (19:00), “Dwight in London” (5:46), “Making of Arizona Bay” (7:23) and “The Ranch” (7:51). In “Festivals”, we follow the publicity for American see the filmmakers and Hicks family at various film festivals. This is mostly a self-congratulatory piece, as we hear a lot of rapturous reception for the movie and not a lot else.

“Abbey Road” includes remarks from Steve Hicks as he discusses how he took Bill’s demo music recordings to be mastered at Abbey Road. Really? Bill Hicks’ random noodlings are worthy of professional mastering? If you say “yes”, you’ll like the program; if not, skip this featurette.

During “Shoots”, we hear from Booth as he discusses his documentary about the US drug war. Um, okay – why is this here? What does it have to do with Hick’s life and career? It’s an odd addition to the set.

Over in “Tribute”, we see Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, and unnamed others at a 2009 London event. It’s more of the same. We hear how the Brits “got” Hicks and how brilliant he was. Yawn.

“Comedy School” features comments from Slade and Ladmirault. They talk a little about the stand-up field along with more about Hicks and his work. We get a few interesting thoughts about the challenges of being a stand-up, but mostly it provides more praise for Hicks and themselves.

When we shift to “London”, we find Slade in the UK. Most of the piece lets us see Slade’s stand-up routine; he also adds some notes about his performances. This is another “why is this here?” piece, since it does little more than promote Slade. The bits shown aren’t funny, and he remains smug and condescending. It turns out that just like Hicks, he’s unjustly ignored by Americans but appreciated by the Brits. Stupid Americans – why can’t they appreciate the brilliance of a comic who makes lame jokes about losing his brother in a Wal-Mart?

“Making of Arizona Bay features Booth as we learn about aspects of Hicks’ album that combined stand-up and music. We see shots from the studio in which Hicks records his songs. It’s not especially interesting, but fans will enjoy the behind the scenes footage.

For the final featurette, “Ranch” shows Booth at a Texas spot owned by his family. He shows us the location and tells us some banal stories that never become particularly interesting.

Deleted Scenes breaks into two areas. We find seven “Deleted Scenes” (7:22) and seven “Early and Alternate Scenes” (8:21). Across these, we hear from Slade, Farneti, Booth, Ladmirault, Huggins, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Lynn Hicks, and Johndrow. Most of them provide general memories/anecdotes, though we also hear a short phone call between Bill Hicks and Slade, and we also find a very early comedy routine from that pair. Nothing memorable appears, but the sequences are generally decent.

Under Rare Clips, we discover 18 segments with a total running time of 33 minutes, 18 seconds. Most of them come from stand-up appearances, though we also get a silent snippet from his youth – along with Stone - as well as Hicks at the Waco siege and a trailer for Ninja Bachelor Party trailer. The last three are the most interesting as curiosities, while the other 15 aren’t particularly enjoyable – to me, at least. They just offer more of Hick’s “I’m smarter than you” smugness and his tendency to pick on easy targets like rednecks and televangelists. Maybe they’ll amuse others, but I found little humor.

Three snippets show up under Bill’s Audio Journal Clips. These include “Bill Lonely in LA, 1981” (3:07), “Bill Leaves New York for LA, 1992” (4:09) and “Rare Interview with Nick Doody, 1992” (28:15). The first two offer Hicks’ personal thoughts he recorded while alone; they’re moderately useful as insights. “Doody” was done for Nick’s Oxford student newspaper and is more traditional, obviously, as it gets into Hicks’ career and approach to comedy. It’s pretty straightforward – and also interesting, as it’s good to hear Hicks talk about his ideas.

(As an aside, it can be a chore to dig through all the extras. While the “Extended Interviews” offer a “Play All” option, none of the others come with this possibility. Instead, when one clip ends, the disc goes back to the main menu, so you need to wade through all of the choices to get back to the next one. This is a consistent inconvenience – and an unnecessary one, as I don’t know why the disc comes with such user-unfriendly coding.)

Disc Two launches with a promo for Doctor Who. We also find an Audience Reaction Trailer for American.

The package finishes with a booklet. It delves into production notes and gives us info about the creation of the film. It acts as a good capper on the set.

Over the years since his 1994 death, Bill Hicks has become something of a comedy legend. If you want to find out why, look somewhere other than American: The Bill Hicks Story. It gives us some interesting notes about suffers from a one-sided perspective. The Blu-ray provides average picture and audio along with a long roster of supplements. This one seems to be a “preach to the choir” production; established Hicks fans will like it, but I don’t think it’ll do much to intrigue others.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main