Strange though it may seem, “American” might be a perfect word for describing the sorely missed comedian Bill Hicks. The man spent a majority of his comic career tearing the American government a new one, but his bold defiance of conformity and his devotion to strong opinions are among the most American values there are. Seventeen years after his death, Hicks remains a comic legend for his brash criticisms directed against the military, dwindling American intelligence, and consumerism. Hicks was stabbing at the Achilles heel of “the American Way” and making everyone laugh as he did it.
American provides some of the context for Hicks’ outrageous humor, told by some of his closest friends and family members. Starting at birth, it chronicles his rise from half of a high school comedy duo, through drugs, alcohol and rehab, ending with his death from pancreatic cancer at age 32. Though Hicks kept little of himself hidden, American provides even more context for the man behind the jokes. His distrust of advertising, his refusal to believe that consumerism would bring happiness, and his opposition to the Iraq War all stem from his insistence on brutal self-honesty. In fact, Hicks’ likeably real and sometimes unhinged performances were likely the products of someone who knew himself thoroughly. Sadly, his candor and satire have also resulted in his being relatively unknown in the States (though not in the UK) since his death in 1994.
The documentary combines interview footage, heavy amounts of Hicks’ hysterical live performances, and awkward cut-and-paste animations created with photos from Hicks’ past. These animations are fairly harmless but visually unappealing, sometimes distractingly so. The soundtrack largely features tunes by Hicks himself — definitely a good touch. While it’s nice to get a look at his life through stories from his closest relations, most of the film’s more memorable moments are comprised of clips from Hicks’ routines. That said, American is a watchable, often hilarious movie and an enlightening look at the life of one of America’s comedic heroes.