Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: "American: The Bill Hicks Story"

Though he only lived to be 32 years old, comedian Bill Hicks packed a lot of life into that short span, as does the lovingly made and visually wild documentary "American: The Bill Hicks Story," now streaming on Netflix and available on DVD.

It's a movie made by fans and for fans of the stand-up comic with an eviscerating wit, but also serves as a good introduction to a very talented performer who often toiled in anonymity in the country he called home but embraced with complicated emotions.

But before I get into more about the movie, it's good to know a little more about the man himself, too. Born in Valdosta, his family moved at an early age to Houston, Texas, where he would sneak out of the house as a teenager to perform as a comedy duo with a friend at one of Houston's main comedy clubs.

Much of the early appeal of "American" comes in seeing his style develop, from a good young comedian with an already wicked smile, to one who would later show a much darker and funnier side, drawing inspiration from his anger as he delivered sobering diatribes on consumerism, war, drugs or whatever else piqued his interest that night.

And like his comedy, which certainly won't appeal to everyone and never tries to, Hicks' short life was full of contradictions.

Though he at first embraced alcohol and other drugs as a way of liberating his voice, he eventually gave them all up except cigarettes, which he could never kick. And though Hicks was an often harsh critic of American politics, he clearly yearned to be as accepted here as he was overseas, especially in Great Britain, where he really became a star.

Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas bottle all this up into a movie that tells Hicks' story in an unconventional but always inviting style, using family photographs and stories mixed with footage of Hicks on stage to create an almost animated dreamscape that's extremely fitting to its complicated subject. So, if your sensibilities can take it, take some time this weekend to meet Bill Hicks in a movie that burns as brightly has he himself did in his all-too-short life.

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