A hagiographic portrait of the standup comic and social satirist who never quite reached beyond cult status in the U.S., “American: The Bill Hicks Story” might have impressed more of the unconverted had it included more performance footage of its subject. Still, there’s likely a limited but enthusiastic aud to be found through fest, cable and homevid exposure for this Brit-produced doc about the acerbic humorist who was felled by pancreatic cancer at age 32 in 1994. Theatrical play in the U.K., where Hicks attracted a sizable following, could be profitable.
Helmers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas rely less on talking-head interviews than imaginatively “animated” still photos underscored by testimonials from Hicks’ parents, siblings and close friends. Using that, along with a few archival clips of Hicks onstage and on TV, the filmmakers fashion a fascinating portrait of a born funnyman who seemed to know early on that his time was limited.
Pic is most amusing while covering a period in Hicks’ youth that seems ready-made for dramatization in a feature biopic — when, while still a teenager in Houston, he would perform at first with a friend, then as a solo standup, at a local comedy club. The docu goes on to trace a familiar path through a grown-up career temporarily stalled by drug and alcohol abuse, then takes a refreshingly upbeat detour as Hicks cleans up his act offstage even as his onstage material becomes increasingly edgier and less conventional.
Ironically, Hicks appeared to be hitting his stride as an influential and iconoclastic humorist just prior to his medical death sentence, and raises the possibility he might have been evolving into a Mort Sahl type of comic commentator at the time of his death.
Pic notes how he found an avidly receptive aud during a U.K. tour, and suggests that Hicks actually profited publicity-wise when one of his routines was deleted in its entirety from “Late Night With David Letterman” before a 1993 telecast, reportedly because of barbed jokes aimed at organized religion. (The filmmakers duly note during a closing credits sequence that, in 2009, Letterman invited Hicks’ mother to appear on his show before he played a tape of the snipped sketch.)
Ultimately, the doc comes off as yet another reminder that, in showbiz and elsewhere, one of the greatest tragedies in life is unfulfilled promise.
Tech values are polished, with Graham Smith’s skillful animation work invaluable.