When charged with making a documentary about a subject whose work is far more interesting than his life, how does a filmmaker proceed? If you’re Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, directors of American: The Bill Hicks Story, a portrait of the acerbic stand-up comic who died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 at the age of 32, you include as much footage of his act as possible—and fill in the gaps with personal recollections from family and friends. While this testimony usefully contextualizes Hicks’s career, it fails to pin down the essence of this angry, stubborn man, devoting too much time to his drug- and alcohol-fueled wild-man days and his subsequent sobriety. Far more interesting is the onstage trajectory the film traces, as Hicks moves from teenage prodigy, cracking wise about suburban malaise, to a man increasingly disgusted with what he calls, in a bad moment, the “peon masses” of America, to an artist able to channel that disgust into an acidly subversive, politically charged routine that happens to be gut-bustingly hilarious. Hicks’s shtick is so good and his life so ordinary that it’s hard to escape the feeling that we might’ve been better off just watching a compilation of the groundbreaking funnyman’s work.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2011