Quint loves AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY at SXSW!!!
Published at: March 16, 2010, 1:54 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a look at a movie I saw during today’s SXSW craziness called AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY.
If you have no idea who Bill Hicks is, I implore you to seek out his work. Go to YouTube and watch every bit of his stand-up you can find. Order or borrow his albums Arizona Bay and Rant in E-Minor.
Bill Hicks was absolutely in the same league as George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and had he not died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 I think he’d be just as well known as those three men, too.
The personality I was familiar with was the opinionated, loud, intellectual, biting, borderline insulting comic from his later career. In my ignorance I thought that was Hicks from day one, but this movie, made with the cooperation of Bill’s close friends and family, showed me everything that led up to the Bill Hicks I knew, the good and the bad.
Interestingly enough, as a teenager Hicks took his messing around with friend Dwight Slade on the stage and his act involved zero cursing. When the movie gets to the point where Hicks steps on stage for the first time in a newly formed Houston comedy club I expected the normal story… talented artist tries his craft for the first time, fails, but succeeds in the end.
Nope, that guy knocked it out of the park first time out. But he did it in a way that didn’t really resemble the Bill Hicks that became semi-famous before his death in 1994 and a worshipped God of comedy after. The only similarity is that both are fucking funny. The footage from Bill Hicks’ early stand-up show-cases his talent as a storyteller and the ability he had to bring an audience along beat by beat, setting them up like a magician with a real story then coming out of nowhere with the funny.
Bill’s journey was similar to many artists. Drugs, alcohol, temperamental mood swings, the works. But unlike most such stories Hicks righted himself, kicked the booze, kicked the drugs (even though it seems him using mushrooms was what took him to the next level as a person and comedian) and didn’t lose any of his edge because of it.
I won’t run through Hicks’ entire story, but that’s one of the joys of this documentary… getting a real glimpse at such a complicated and brilliant man and all without turning into a talking heads style documentary.
Much as been made about this documentary’s use of animation and it’s pretty damn great. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas use thousands of archival photos of Hicks from infancy all the way up to days before his death as a starting point and bring them to life in fascinating ways.
The animation here isn’t traditional animation, but a subtler kind that gives life to stories told by Hicks’ closest friends and family. Sometimes Harlock and Thomas cut back and forth between pictures like it’s a scene in a feature film and sometimes they’ll use motion from a series of stills that make a 16 year old Bill Hicks look like he’s turning around and looking at us. Sometimes they pull the focus of a particular photo out and drop the background far back.
There’s also a ton of home videos, footage from early performances and even a particularly incredible piece where Hicks picked up a tape recorder and started discussing his deep-rooted fears of having to live up to being funny. It’s a raw and honest moment of insecurity from someone who just oozes confidence in every bit of moving footage I’ve ever seen. He explains that if he’s not funny he’s lost everything. He didn’t go to college, go for the easy life of finding a high paying, unfulfilling life and without comedy he has nothing and that thought terrifies him.
Considering he told this to a tape recorder and not a human being makes it even that much more personal. I almost felt guilty listening to it.
Visually the movie’s fantastic and it does act as a bit of a highlight reel of Hicks’ best material. The people surrounding me were laughing just as hard as I was knowing most of the later material. I don’t know for sure, but I had the feeling that the young guys sitting around me weren’t very familiar with Hicks before the film and seeing them bent over wheezing for breath as Hicks unleashed his particular form of comedy genius made me smile.
There was a preacher quality to Hicks. He combined comedy with real insight into the machinations of the world we live in, cutting through bullshit immediately and offering up a positive message of hope and love. He was a fascinating man and AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY is a fascinating and incredibly entertaining movie.
I’d love it if someone like HBO Films stepped in to take the film, give it a limited release and play the ever-loving shit out of it on their cable channels.
After the film directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas took the stage. They were joined by Bill Hicks’ brother Steve. Bill’s mother was in the audience as well. It was clear they were emotional about the film. I also got a sense of great pride in Steve’s voice when talking about his brother and Steve and his family’s desire to spread Bill’s message.
Steve said there is 150 hours of never before seen video of Bill Hicks performing, over 200 hours of never released audio and a shoebox filled with tapes of Bill’s music recorded while he was on the road. Steve went to Abbey Road and mastered all of the music and he expects around Fall of 2010 we’ll be seeing some of all this unreleased material start to be put out there.
I, for one, can’t wait.
Here’s the trailer to the flick. It really is a strong documentary that covers all the bases… it’s entertaining, informative and completely absorbing. Definitely keep your eye out for it.