I have been a follower of the word of Bill Hicks for many years. I consider the man one of my personal heroes and I often ask myself What Would Bill Do. I’ve watched as much footage as I can on Hicks, and read American Scream more than a few times. The excitement to see the new documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story was palpable for me because it would be yet another look into the life of one of the few people I respect. I watched the documentary twice because my initial reaction puzzled me. After the second time I decided I couldn’t deny the truth, no matter what the critics were saying. To me American: The Bill Hicks Story is boring and, while it’s obviously a labor of love, it only brushes small strokes of what is a much bigger picture.
Don’t get me wrong; American isn’t a bad movie. It’s entertaining, fun and clearly done by people who feel as passionate about Hicks as I do. The problem is that it doesn’t really tell us anything, at least nothing new. In fact it tells us very little about the man at all. I suppose part of this could be how extensively I’ve read up on Bill Hicks. This film seems more suited for those who know very little about the history, which would be okay except that it’s selling itself as the definitive documentary. That irks me because this film, which tells the tale of a man who put himself out there warts and all, leaves most of the warts alone. In doing that they strip it of what makes a documentary truly compelling.
If I had to sum up the flaw with American in two words they would be Hero Worship. When you approach a film based on a subject you love too dearly, it can blind you to what’s really the hook of the piece. American basically tells us that Bill was a brilliant comic who went through some bad times, came out a better comic, got huge in Europe and then died. If you remove the animation, the editing and the tricks, that’s all that you get. There’s so much left unsaid that it comes off more as a fluff piece than the “definitive” documentary.
For example, in one of the interviews a subject says, “Bill had girlfriends” when talking about his lonely life on the road. The film never expands on that. American Scream (by Cynthia True) has a few heartbreaking stories about the relationships Bill had, none of which are in the film. Wouldn’t that be a great look into his drive, his need to forgo relationships to focus on his comedy? How that deepened his sense of isolation? Instead we get that one line and then off to something else. The filmmakers also touch on how Bill made fun of his father when he started out, and they do some in depth stuff about the history of the family. However they don’t go into the relationships, you don’t know how the dynamics of his family pushed Bill along. The only person you get any real idea about with regards to his relationship with Bill is his brother, and even that section is very surface level.
When American goes into Bill’s battle with drugs and alcohol, they nearly set it up as if it’s everybody else’s fault, as if Bill was a poor victim of circumstance. It makes the whole section hard to swallow because it doesn’t really assign Bill his share of the blame for what went on. In fact the only time they talk about Bill’s drug use in depth is to describe how it opened his mind as a comic or how alcohol helped to open up his rage. There’s no meat to his struggle, no spotlight on it. The film seems content to touch various milestones in Bill’s life and then fill the holes with rare footage. Sure it’s nice to see Bill playing with kids or hanging around his comic buddies, but that’s not why I watch a documentary.
Part of the problem is the structure. So many critics are jumping on the bandwagon of how the non-stop animation behind the film is brilliant and breathtaking. I don’t agree. It’s reminiscent of The Kid Stays In The Picture in that it takes real photos of Bill and his friends and family and animates around them. If it’s a section about Bill driving alone to a club, they take a photo of bill and build an animated car around the photo so it looks like the photo is driving. It’s hard to explain, just watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean. The issue with the animation is twofold and works alongside the lack of depth of the movie to undo it.
First of all it’s too much, after about half an hour the animation becomes distracting. If it had been used to punch up sections or as small bits for effect it would have been cool, this way it gets tedious. I kept waiting for Hicks to proclaim, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way”. The second problem is that it creates a disconnect to the subject matter. Watching Bill Hicks represented by non-stop animation takes you out of the fact that this is a human story, about human frailty, bravery and tragedy. In fact when the live interviews are shown the film jolts more to life than with the animation, and it left me feeling like something was missing. I wanted to see these people throughout the movie, not just watch the animation director perfect his resume.
There’s another Bill Hicks documentary titled “Just A Ride” and while it isn’t as pretty as American, it’s infinitely more interesting. I still say the best way to learn about his life is to read American Scream. If you don’t know anything at all about Bill Hicks, or you have a passing interest in his life, then American: The Bill Hicks Story will be a solid hundred minutes of entertainment. For the rest of us, those looking for real insight to what made Bill Hicks tick and what drove him to stand against the grain, American will be a brightly colored re-tread over familiar territory. There’s a real tale to be told in the life of Bill Hicks, American just doesn’t tell it.