DVD Review: American-The Bill Hicks Story

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Being a fan of the art of stand-up comedy, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Bill Hicks until this documentary, now on DVD from the BBC. For those in the dark like myself, Hicks was a comic like few others. He used comedy as a device, not only to make people laugh, but with an undercurrent of intellectualism designed to make people think and feel. I don’t necessarily share his political and occasionally radical views, but I can appreciate his technique, and definitely, his humor.

Unfortunately, Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in his early thirties, preventing him from becoming the legend he seemed destined to become. His extreme approach to comedy alienated himself from most Americans, but he was wildly popular internationally. However, he was just starting to break out in America around the time of his death. This documentary not only serves as a fascinating biography of a highly unusual individual, but as a window into the mind of someone very often misunderstood.

Hicks got into comedy at a very young age, and once he started, he never stopped. The film delves into all aspects of his life, both professionally and personally. Hicks was a man who often seemed like a character, but this documentary shows him also as a human being. We meet his friends and his families, and explore his fears and insecurities. This film makes him feel real, and as the filmmakers explore the darker sides of his life, including excessive alcohol use, we as an audience find ourselves rooting for him to pull out of it.

What really makes this docuementary stand out amongst others of it’s kind is it’s visual style. There are no “talking heads” to be found in this film. The entire movie is a combination of footage of his real stand-up routines taken from his entire career and highly stylized animated depictions of photos from his life. The film is narrated by the friends and family who knew him best, and the filmmakers have taken photos from the moments being discussed, put them “into a 3D space,” and utilized several filmic techniques to move the camera within the shot. It’s a visually compelling approach, and keeps the film constantly moving while being more-or-less a slide show of his life.

This is the type of movie that should be studied by anybody with a passion. He decided early on that he was going to be a comedian, and he accepted nothing less. The film contains footage of some of his first sets at open-mic nights, and the raw talent and natural gift for comedy is awe-inspiring. The material might not have been as strong at the start of his career, but he has a confidence and natural command of an audience that any performer should strive for.

The film is now on DVD, and comes in a two-disc set with an almost-excessive amount of extras. The box brags that there are “over five hours of extras,” and I have to admit that I still haven’t gotten through all of them (although I will definitely be finishing after finishing this review). There are over three hours of extended interviews, deleted and alternate scenes, festival footage, unseen performances, and on and on. This DVD is like a shrine to all things Hicks, and if you’re already a fan, it’s a must-own. And if you’re not a fan yet, watch the film, and by the end, I guarantee that you will be.