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Blu-ray Review: American: The Bill Hicks Story

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The Film

Bill Hicks might not have the same name recognition as comics like George Carlin or Richard Pryor, but you’d probably have little trouble finding someone to categorize him right alongside them. A revered presence in the world of stand-up comedy, Hicks died at only 32 from pancreatic cancer, cementing his status as a cult favorite who hardly had the chance to break into the public consciousness.

American: The Bill Hicks Story, directed by British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas — Hicks had far more success while alive in the UK than the U.S. — is long on biographical information, but a little short on insight. As such, it’s not a bad introduction for those mostly or totally unfamiliar with Hicks, but dedicated fans might be less enamored. Although for a particular kind of dedicated fan — one who worships the ground Hicks walked on — the film might actually be perfect, as it often treats him with the same reverential awe.

The film’s problems with objectivity aside, it’s a technical muddle inflamed by the filmmakers’ desire to jazz up the talking head format. The film is chiefly comprised of interviews from Hicks’ mother and siblings and many of his friends and contemporaries, including Dwight Slade, Kevin Booth and Jimmy Pineapple, but we rarely see any of the interviewees.

Instead, their memories act as narration for the film’s animated photograph style, in which images of Hicks and others are cut out and placed in three-dimensional spaces, similar to the film The Kid Stays in the Picture. A little of this technique goes a long way, and while I wouldn’t have minded the occasional interlude, its pervasiveness is rather exhausting.

Despite my complaints, American still allows the rancorous charm of Hicks to come through, and the film is truly at its best when showcasing Hicks’ material, whether from his early days as a clean-cut Woody Allen-style comic in Houston to his later brand of belligerent political and social commentary, as seen in specials like Sane Man and HBO’s One Night Stand.

Curiously, although the film certainly hints at controversy, it never really addresses it, completely omitting any mention of Denis Leary’s alleged joke-stealing and just mentioning in passing Hicks’ final Letterman appearance that was cut before it aired.

While American: The Bill Hicks Story gave me a better understanding of his background, it didn’t really grow my appreciation of his work. To that end, simply popping in one of his specials seems like the best route.

The Blu-ray Disc

American: The Bill Hicks Story is presented in 1080i high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. This isn’t really a film that needs to be seen in high-def, as most of the archive footage is shot on video, and thus, riddled with the expected artifacts. The photo-animated sections look decent, mostly enjoying a boost in color over what standard definition could provide. The few instances of actual talking heads have a bright, slightly glossy appearance, but the transfer can’t overcome occasional shimmering, haloing and edge enhancement.

Audio is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that’s more dynamic than your average documentary, mostly due to the rock score that features a number of songs from Hicks’ own band, Marblehead Johnson. Front channel narration is clean and clear.

Special Features

There are extras galore in this two-disc set, although quantity seems to trump quality a lot of the time. Most of the bonus material is presented in 1080i. The first disc includes an hour of additional interview footage, a post-screening Q&A at SXSW and a revisiting of Hicks’ Dominion Tour with his family.

The second disc contains two more hours of interviews, more than an hour of featurettes that look at festival reactions, tributes and some of Hicks’ favorite locations, and 14 deleted and alternate scenes. Unfortunately, there is no play all option for the deleted scenes, and after one finishes, you are brought back to the top menu rather than the deleted scenes menu.

The best feature in the package is a collection of 18 rare clips that feature Hicks doing standup from all eras of his life. The trailer to his short film Ninja Bachelor Party also makes it into this section. Like the deleted scenes, these clips have no play all function.

Also on the disc are clips from Hicks’ audio journal, an interview with Nick Doody and a trailer for the film. All in all, the bonus material approaches six hours.

The Bottom Line

While its shortcomings as a documentary are numerous, there’s enough here to recommend, especially with the wealth of bonus material available.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.