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.