American: The Bill Hicks Story Movie Review
Bill Hicks grew up in Houston with his pals Dwight and Kevin. His deeply religious mother Mary always knew there was something different about him, as did his older siblings Lynne and Steve. And indeed, by the time he was a teen, he and his friends were sneaking off to comedy clubs, where Bill quickly built a reputation as a funny and very outspoken comic. Over the years, his reputation grew as a regular at Los Angeles' famed Comedy Store and as a recurring guest on David Letterman's show.
Typically, there is a period of drug and alcohol abuse in his story, but it was after this that he emerged with an even sharper edge, taking on political taboos and speaking out with sometimes brutal candour against government hypocrisy and, most notably, the culture of marketing and advertising that erodes personal freedom. "It's all about money, not freedom," he said predicting both the War on Terror and the Homeland Security business. And he also took on pop culture, asking, "When did mediocrity become a role model?"
Amazingly, he said all of this before 1994, when he died from cancer at age 32.
And the filmmakers use a terrific archive of stills and home video to tell the story. Many of these images are cleverly tinkered with to add animation and context, which gives the film a sharp visual tone to go with Hicks' sharp words. Even his most uneven, drug-addled performances still sting with blunt honesty. So it's a little frustrating that, with all of the off-screen voices, we're not always clear who's talking.
Beyond Hicks' genius for finding humour in every situation, what emerges over the course of this film is a challenging message about standing up for what's right. This is especially potent now, when dissent is seen as traitorous and partisan politics have replaced real governance. As one person notes about Hicks, a true patriot criticises the state in the name of truth. And his most enduring message is that life is a choice between fear and love.