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AUSTIN — A groundbreaking comedian gets a step closer to immortality with “American: The Bill Hicks Story,” a portrait of the short-lived artist that will move fans while letting the uninitiated witness enough onstage highlights to leave them wanting more. Sufficiently entertaining for a modest theatrical run, it would be perfect for a small-screen pairing with his few existing concert films.
Avoiding the usual “underappreciated genius” format in which fellow artists and other authorities are brought in to convince viewers of the subject’s importance, “American” spends time exclusively with those who knew Hicks as a person first, then as a performer: his mother, his siblings and the friends who witnessed or participated in his teenage efforts to break into show business.
Rarely showing interviewees onscreen until the end, filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas instead chop up family photos and manipulate them to animate the stories being told. Hicks and his sidekicks weren’t camera-shy, so there are plenty of expressions to choose from as the filmmakers play out dialogue and conjure schoolyard antics.
It’s a funny, well executed tactic to fill time until the point in his career from which video footage is available. Hicks’ ambitions bore early fruit, with the kid making his way from open mikes to actual comedy club bookings while still in high school, and in footage of those earliest sets he is a startlingly self-assured performer. Even before discovering his signature themes, he could steer an audience’s reactions better than most adult comics.
If Hicks became a pro at an early age, he was also precocious about his Lenny-Bruce-like dark period: While some drugs (the psychedelics that informed many memorable stage bits) served him well, alcohol proved more than he could handle and nearly made him unhireable.
Harlock and Thomas don’t sensationalize this phase, but they show how it made Hicks’ loved ones comfortable with the possibility that, even when his career bounced back, the comedian might never achieve the success that once looked certain.
As the routines we see grow more political and philosophical, some viewers might wish for interviews that would put this confrontational (but very funny) material in context with what Hicks’ peers were doing at the time. But the decision to stay with the core group of interviewees gives the film a compelling intimacy, eventually making the story’s sad end (Hicks died of pancreatic cancer at 32) moving without being manipulative.
Venue: South by Southwest Festival
Production company: Halflife Films/Jackamo TV
Directors: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
Producers: Paul Thomas, Matt Harlock
Director of photography: Paul Thomas
Music: Mark Daniels
Editor: Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas
No MPAA rating, 103 minutes
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