American: The Bill Hicks Story Review: "'Freebird!' The Mantra of the Moron"
There's not a lot to say about this documentary ,which is now available on iTunes (it's also in limited release). If you liked Bill Hicks, you'll like the documentary. If you didn't like Bill Hicks, kill yourself (also, you won't like this documentary). And if you have no idea who Bill Hicks is, check out these clips (no, really, they are fucking hilarious and true and awesome in every sense of the word). If you like them, I'd recommend American: The Bill Hicks Story as a decent primer on his material, since half of the documentary consists of clips of his stand-up routine:
Rick Astley? Have you seen this banal incubus at work? Boy, if this guy isn't heralding Satan's imminent approach to Earth, huh. "Don't ever wanna make you cry, never wanna make you sigh ... never gonna break your heart" ... oh, I wouldn't worry about that without a dick, buddy. You got a corn nut! You got a clit! You're not even a guy! You're an AIDS germ that got off a slide! They're puttin' music to AIDS germs, they're puttin' a drum machine behind them in a metronome beat and Ted Turner's colorizing 'em, God damn it!
We live in a world where John Lennon was murdered, yet Barry Manilow continues to put out fucking albums. God-dammit! If you're gonna kill somebody, have some fucking taste. I'll drive you to Kenny Rogers' house.
I was in Nashville, Tennessee, and after the show I went to a Waffle House. I'm not proud of it, but I was hungry. And I'm sitting there eating and reading a book. I don't know anybody, I'm alone, so I'm reading a book. The waitress comes over to me like, "What'chu readin' for?" I had never been asked that. Not "What am I reading?" but "What am I reading for?" Goddangit, you stumped me. Hmm, why do I read? I suppose I read for a lot of reasons, one of the main ones being so I don't end up being a fucking waffle waitress.
Why is marijuana against the law? It grows naturally on our planet, serves a thousand different functions, all of them positive. To make marijuana against the law is like saying that God made a mistake. Like on the seventh day God looked down, "There it is. My Creation, perfect and holy in all ways. Now I can rest. [Gives shocked expression] Oh my Me! I left fuckin' pot everywhere. I should never have smoked that joint on the third day. Hehe, that was the day I created the possum. Still gives me a chuckle. But if I leave pot everywhere, that's gonna give people the impression they're supposed to ... use it. Now I have to create Republicans." " ... and God wept", I believe is the next part of that story.
People often ask me where I stand politically. It's not that I disagree with Bush's economic policy or his foreign policy, it's that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.
You ever look at their faces? "We're pro-life." Don't they look it? Don't they just exude joie de vivre?
American: The Bill Hicks Story is little more, really, than a lot of Bill Hicks's best routines interspersed with the story of his life. His material was much more interesting than his short existence on Earth (he passed away from cancer at the young age of 32). He had an average middle-class upbringing; he started stand-up young (he was on stage by the time he was 15); he severely abused drugs and alcohol for a number of years; he cleaned up; and he never got the mainstream acceptance that he deserved. It's not exactly surprising, really, since his material often alienated that very mainstream America he was trying to win over.
That narrative portion of the documentary is told primarily through the use of old photos, weirdly photo-shopped into an odd slideshow collage that supplement voice-over confessionals from his family and his close friends, most of whom were also stand-up comedians. They seem like very nice people.
I wish I could offer a more substantive review than this. There's not much more to than film, unless you want me to wax polemically about theman: He was uncompromising. He was an asshole. He was incredibly prescient. He was angry, self-righteous, smug, and loathed anti-intellectualism. But he got inside your head, and he rattled around in there, and he made you think. Sometimes, he even made you laugh. If he hadn't died when he did, he'd have probably keeled over when George W. Bush was elected.
I'd love to think that he was simply way ahead of his time, but his act would likely be just as roundly rejected by mainstream American today as it was 20 years ago. Maybe even moreso. He spoke truth to power; unfortunately, the power wasn't listening. But a lot of us were, and his commentary was formative and engendered in an entire generation a healthy skepticism of fear-and-greed based marketing, politics, and culture.
(This review was originally published after a 2010 screening at SXSW.