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With: Bill Hicks, Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth, John Farneti, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 101
Date: 10/23/2009

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Imagination of Ourselves

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Bill Hicks (1961-1994) may be the greatest American comedian of all time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that American is the greatest documentary about a comedian. The main problem is that the very best footage you're ever going to see on Hicks is onstage. His offscreen life wasn't nearly as dynamic. He lived to the age of 32 before dying of pancreatic cancer. He was never married, never had kids, and romance doesn't seem to have been much of a big deal in his life. He became an alcoholic, sobered up, and kept smoking cigarettes. He had many of the same friends his whole life. The two big turning points in his life appear to have been a mushroom trip and a visit to England.

It doesn't help that the new documentary avoids many of these topics. It never mentions Hicks' fiancée, or the fact that he was friends with the equally incendiary comedian Sam Kinison (who died in 1992), or that Denis Leary reportedly borrowed Hicks' material for his own act. Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, American spends most of its running time coming up with animated collages of old photos to accompany the spoken interviews from Hicks' family and friends. Thankfully there are some clips of Hicks at work, on stage, but not nearly enough. The movie leaves you wanting more. Much more.

Still, that can be a good thing, given that Hicks still isn't much of a household name. He was more like a Lenny Bruce, a prophet, a poet, a preacher, than he was a personality that could be molded to a sitcom or a romantic comedy feature film. So American: The Bill Hicks Story makes a fairly good introduction to his work, and to just what it is that makes him great. He thrived on hypocrisy, and sometimes attacked hypocrisy buried so deep it wasn't even questioned anymore. Despite his anger and venom, he raged against money, rudeness, fear, and fakeness, and advocated truth and love. It would have been interesting to see how he aged, and how he took on the themes of life after marriage and children.

Hicks deserves a truly great documentary, but for now this one will do, and several of his concert videos (including Sane Man) and CDs and still available. Distributed by the BBC, the new American Blu-Ray is a two-disc set with lots of extras, including another movie-and-a-half's worth of interviews. Best of all is about 30 minutes of "rare" clips of Hicks onstage; the drawback is that each of these many short clips must be accessed one at a time (there's no "play all" option).

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