'Comedy Dynamics Presents Bill Hicks': Film Review
A 1991 stand-up set gets a familial intro.
Texas-raised comedian Bill Hicks was attracting a cult following when he died at 32 of pancreatic cancer. Within a few years of his 1994 passing, Rykodisc launched a CD campaign that helped cement his reputation, inspiring a generation of disciples. Now Comedy Dynamics has acquired this and Hicks's video material for a repackaging effort heralded by the one-night Comedy Dynamics Presents Bill Hicks. While the Fathom-promoted evening makes a fair introduction to the artist for those who've only seen his name on "best comedians ever" lists, it holds little for longtime fans.
Everyone in that latter group, after all, will have seen Relentless, the popular special shot at 1991's Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. That makes up most of the Fathom show, with about 30 minutes of introductory material thrown in to reach feature length. About as bare-bones as you can get, this intro offers Bill's brother Steve Hicks telling stories in front of a drop canvas with clips of various performances (some relevant to the story at hand, some not) spliced into the remembrance. Those familiar with the 2010 doc American: The Bill Hicks Story, which similarly focused on the Hicks family, will find this a stale leftover.
As for Relentless, seeing it again now forces one to admit the ways Hicks's very influential act has not aged well. Hicks skewered complacency, commercialism and willful ignorance, and with that came a smug superiority that can be grating. In bits like one in which "hillbillies" are puzzled by his interest in books, he makes straw men out of common people in ways that contradict another of his recurring themes — that his use of psychedelics convinced him that all humanity is one. A leavening self-deprecation is rarely part of the shtick, though his tirades against righteous anti-smoking activists do eventually work around to mocking his self-destructive habit.
None of which is to say that Hicks was not frequently on target both in his cultural critique and his comedy. He's an obvious heir to Lenny Bruce (another trailblazer whose work can be challenging to today's listeners) when dissecting hypocrisy about sex, war and religion. Had he lived, would Hicks have calcified into an angry caricature, or would he have found a more relaxed way of communicating his moral sensibility to audiences who were more on his side than he acknowledges here?
Production company: Comedy Dynamics
Director: Chris Bould
Producers: Gillian Strachan
Executive producers: Charles Brand; Fathom material: Brian Volk-Weiss, Jack Vaughn, Cisco Henson
Director of photography: Chris St. John Smith; Fathom material: Brooks Burgoon
Editor: Mykola A. Pawluk; Fathom material: Andrew McGivney
No rating, 83 minutes