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Movie Review: American: The Bill Hicks Story

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Around about the time I started talking about “À bout de souffle” instead of “Breathless,” and took, for whatever reason, to equating “interesting interests” with “interesting people,” I came into possession of a record album by the name of Arizona Bay by one Bill Hicks — a comedian of the class folks get awful tetchy about hearing referred to as “comedians.”

“A prophet, boys,” they’ll gasp. “A seer,” is the talk. “Jais the things that man puts out of him in them records… honest to God I was off work a week or more over the head of it, the wife’ll tell you herself, for it was that powerful, this bit of saying that he was goin’ on with.”

If you laugh at Bill Hicks, you’re not getting it. If you were getting it, you’d be doing your laughing from the back window of a Massey Ferguson parked twenty-two fields away, for that’s where your face would be, and the rest of you strewn about the wall next your Ma’s sideboard in a senseless mash o’ scorched skin and singed pube and jangled fragments from status updates about this quiz you took one time that told you what part of your own eye you are (you are the eyeball part of your eye).

“Comedian?! Fuck off! You total tube of tits!”

“Fuck off!” I says, “you total tube of tits!”

“What?” says himself back in the day, shrugging. “Was funny. Stuff about ‘what’s G-12 do?’ Some laughin’ I done at that.”

“Well it’s not meant for laughin’! Would you’ve laughed at Jesus, would you? Would you’ve said aw some laughin’ I done at that man Jesus Christ Almighty on the Cross? An’ him stood there with the Holy hangin’ off him in ropes right there in front of you, and talking the kinds of Truth could blow the cock off a submarine?”

Nobody likes hearing that Bill Hicks was a comedian, any more than they like hearing about how great a pop group the Beatles were. Better that these exponents are considered somehow greater than the form, rather than evidence of its own inherent greatness.

Well a comedian he was, Mr. Bill Hicks, and one that no amount of injustices — being ignored by seemingly everyone in America (“Verily I say unto you, no prophet is accepted in his own country” and blah); being unignored by most every humanities student who ever read Robert Anton Wilson and pretended to like Tim Buckley and took this fierce amount of drugs last night boys, you should’ve seen the state I was in, God almighty I was trippin’ that hard half the folk on my street came out in lumps all down the left-hand side — could blunt or diminish or render any the less Fucking Hilarious.

Shortly after hearing that record mentioned a thousand things-you-couldn’t-care-less-about ago, itself being the third Bill Hicks album, and the first to be released after his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, I set about acquiring the rest: Dangerous (1990), Relentless (1992) and Rant In E-Minor (1997), all of which are absolutely essential. Rant In E-Minor, in particular, is one of the greatest records, comedy or otherwise, that any woman or man has ever in the history of making-noises-that-can-be-heard-later-on-in-a-different-room put their name to, IMO, IMHO, ROFL, FTW!!!

But here now is something else that needs to be said, and that tends to be forgotten when Bill Hicks is invoked of an afternoon or an evening and we’re all sat slobbering at our collective vision of the man like a roomful of horny Lion-O’s before a Jaga made out thoughts of people looking at our balls.

There’s a tension that exists in those performances that all this talk of “sage” and “visionary” and what have you not tends to cloud. A schism, mean to say, between the lefty/liberal, come-on-people-now, fuck-the-fuckers pose, and the worldview attested to by a fair chunk of the material itself. Times, that is, when Hicks is stood there like Nietzsche having just spent a week shuddering his way through a thought about anyone other than Nietzsche, telling us all, in case we forgot, that he is, indeed, a visionary, and that the rest of us are so far beneath him that were we to spend the next ten thousand years digging upwards through the clouds with spades of fire and gorgon-gaze and revelation, still we’d be lucky if we got close enough to suck the damp out the laces of a pair of knackered Air Jordans he threw out his window sixteen centuries past.

I’m not talking about the “paying to hear me come up with comedy you could never in a million years think of yourself” stuff, which is all fair enough and plenty haha. I’m talking about the sneering references to “waffle waitresses,” the rants about the “peons” who don’t get him and never will – the kind of stuff that sits none too comfortably with the rest of this “Fuck You, The Man!” schtick, for reasons of sounding exactly like the kind of thing The Man would say if you were to invite him round your HBO special one time for to pontificate about… well, people who work in waffle houses.

Which is to say it’s not enough to tell us you mean it, maaaan, you have to validate those claims. And if the Good Man Bill did mean it, The Scoundrel Hicks oft-times sounded like the people he claimed to be railing on behalf of were actually the sorts of people he wouldn’t grace with the fumes off a month-old shite he’d shat with somebody else’s arse.

Considerations re: these inconsistencies and discrepancies, none of which make that stuff about the war or about getting pulled over by the cops whilst trippin’ or about smoking (you might’ve heard the Dennis Leary cover version…) or about the Kennedy assassination (which one? oh, that one) any the less exhilarating or inspiring or, y’know, funny, but which nonetheless might make for an interesting documentary on this man Bill Hicks if’n they were to be given any sort of what you might call a ‘seeing to’ by the filmmakers. These considerations, yes, clad in shoddy, ill-fitting, knock-off Thought-garb, these were the things to be found hunched about the waters of the brain-pool of the evening past, gurning at their own reflections, as myself and my beloved Ms Madisson took ourselves along Shaftsbury Avenue in London Town (“I’d hate to be a dustbin in Shaftsbury tonight…”) pursuing a picture house wherein one might spend a time in the company of American: The Bill Hicks Story.

Excited, the pair of us, yes, for it’s been a long time coming, a worthwhile Bill Hicks documentary (the Just A Ride number put together by Channel 4 a few years ago, whatever its virtues, fell someway short of being especially “comprehensive” or, indeed, “good”), and this excitement seemed to be shared by the majority of the folks wandering around the foyer, folks who would later get to hooting and applauding at the screen like as if they were sat a few streets away in the Dominion theatre near two-decades past, listening to the sound of 2000 arseholes puckering as one as this man Hicks tells a roomful of Right-On’s all about how much Goatboy loves them little girls…

Those ten excruciating, and brilliant, minutes aside (see Revelations for the visual and aural record), he was fairly mightily adored in England, and indeed Ireland, was Mr Hicks. Footage appearing near the close of American has him lamenting (in a jocular fashion, mind) the fact that a few nights prior he’d been stood before hundreds of adoring fans in a Belfast theatre — a theatre that once hosted Oscar Wilde — and here he is back in his own country, squinting at the damp-bowed rafters of a comedy club that probably heard its last laugh sometime around the fall of the Ottoman Empire, performing to a couple dozen folks who wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between “Bill Hicks” and a splintered doorframe.

That situation might’ve changed had his final, much-mythologized Letterman appearance actually been aired in October 1993. As it happened, the routine was axed prior to broadcast — a decision which Bill, and plenty commentators, assumed to have been made for the producers by the show’s sponsors, particularly the pro-life organisations whose adverts ran that night, and who would no doubt have found Bill’s stance on the issue to be somewhat at odds with their own — “If you’re so pro-life, don’t link arms and block abortion clinics, link arms and block cemeteries,” and so on.

(The segment was finally run last year, after an extended interview with Bill’s mother during which the host apologised and claimed full responsibility for the last minute cut.)

The situation might’ve changed, I say, but even if it had, the fact remains that less than six months later, at the age of 32, Bill died, leaving – a farewell note revealed – “in love, in laughter and in truth.”

British directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have, I’ll go ahead and reveal, done a fairly fucking wonderful job here. Half-inching the technique showcased in the documentary adaptation of Robert Evans’s The Kid Stays In The Picture, they recount the ins and outs of The Life of Bill Hicks, American, from his younger days as an animated photograph through his time served as a figure in a series of glitchy, fuzzy VHS recordings and onto this fabled tenure as Boy In This Video My Friend Let Me See And, Aw You HAVE To Watch It, I Swear To Fucking God You’ll Be Pissing Third Eyes For A Fortnight – THERE IS NO SPOON!!

What it isn’t, it turns out, is a hagiography, but neither is it terribly interested in doing anything that might make a Bill Hicks hagiography seem like any less of a likelihood at some point in the future (“Hello, is that Ron Howard? Yes, fuck off, Ron Howard. Thank you.”). There’s plenty talk of his swift descent into obnoxious, grog-lashed pandemonium, a brief, uncommented-upon snippet of the infamous “Bill Loses It” show (“I can shout at the performer cause I’m drunk and I got a cunt!!! I want you to get a fucking SOUL!”), but nothing much at all on those schisms outlined up yonder, or on the general air of misogyny and homophobia that saunters into the ring (forgive the pun…) of occasion, as that quote there illustrates.

(The directors have recently made reference to this in an interview with Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, comparing Hicks to Eddie Murphy in this regard, suggesting that, well, stand-up comics were occasionally homophobic and misogynist in the 1980s and, like, we just have to accept that and, y’know… now fuck that to “hush,” please, is my response.)

Also, another thing American isn’t, is full of the same stuff fans have seen a million and seventeen times before. There’s a paucity of Hicks material available via official channels, and the bulk of the bootleg stuff more or less presents the same routines, just garnished with the ambience of a different room full of people who didn’t know whether to laugh or storm the stage. What’s surprising about this venture is the sheer volume of footage detailing routines that’ve never been heard by anyone other than the folks who were there on the night, or the friends and family of whoever did the filming. Bill stood onstage with his guitar round about the recording of Arizona Bay, for example, was something of… well, a revelation, suggesting as it does that the meld of music and comedy which characterises that album (and Rant…) was a prominent feature of the era’s live performances, too.

Similarly wonderful is the footage of a young Bill holding court in this or the other Houston comedy club, revealing that not only was he confident and charming and commanding from the off, but, more importantly, he was funny, proving particularly adept at physical comedy.

(Physical comedy would continue to play a huge part in Hicks’s performances throughout his career – if this element has largely been overlooked, its probably down to the fact that the majority of folks come to him through those incendiary and justly-revered live albums, rather than the handful of officially-released videos.)

So here then is the news: American: The Bill Hicks Story, much like the work of the man himself, is consistently hilarious, revelatory, often beautiful and occasionally really fucking sad. Eschewing (for the most part) the talking-heads aesthetic of your traditional documentary profile, the film, in its combination of animation, home movies, and performance footage, feels properly cinematic, bringing to mind not only The Kid Stays In The Picture, but, more readily, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the high-watermark for this sort of venture, far as I’m concerned.

If you’ve any fondness whatsoever for the work of Bill Hicks, you need to see it – and if you’ve never heard of Bill Hicks, you need to see it twice. Same goes for anyone at all interested in those damn ol’ Culture Wars, or who ever read Robert Anton Wilson or pretended to like Tim Buckley or took this fierce amount of drugs last night and… aw man, and… anyway he stole all his stuff from Denis Leary I heard or… that prescient, but, that’s the thing that gets me, is how prescient it is, Jais if he was poking out the edge of your sock saying these things at you here now you’d think nothing of it for it could’ve been recorded last week or, no – next week I should say, for…

And so on.

Thanks, folks.

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About Aaron McMullan

  • Lord above, Steve, that is a sore lovely thing to be sayin’ of an afternoon or an evening or any time at all that might be halfways measurable. Thank you, sir, for your comment and for takin’ the time to have a wee nosey in the first place.

  • Steve

    This is one of the best things I’ve ever read!!!

  • Scott, thank you very much, man, I am very grateful for that. And I really enjoyed reading your take on the whole shebang, also.

  • Scott Butki

    What’s up with the name changes, guys?

    I loved the documentary – I saw it when it was screened at south by southwest and wrote about it.

    I’ll seed your piece over at newsvine if you don’t mind and steer those who read my piece there over here.

  • Ach God love you, the lot of you, the terrible welcome you make a fella feel.

    Sir Bicho – thank you very much, sire, and I do hope this number makes its way to the US fairly soon. It does sort of make sense, regardless of the title, that we get it first, since not only is it made by a couple brit cats, but also, as you say, a scant few there were who gave him much of the time of day in his own country. In that respect, I suppose, the Howard flick might do more good than harm. Still, it’d be better if this were to attain some sort of Capturing The Friedmans/Devil and Daniel Johnston break-out momentum instead, that we might be spared Parenthicks, or, God forbid, A Beautiful Bill. The Bill Hicks Code, mind you, I would support with each of the me’s that are mine.

    Flexcin, thank you for the comment, Bill’s standing in the UK is touched upon a fair bit towards the end of the picture, I thought. Certainly there are a few avenues – in addition to those flagged in the article doohickey – that could’ve done with a bit more inspecting. But then, there’s only so much you can do with an hour and a half.

    Sir Olsen – glad I am, sire, to be back!

    Sir Brewster – A grand time of it, you’re in for. As I say, one of the main delights of the thing is the ammount of “fresh” material it has hanging about itself. A DVD stuffed to the backs of the balls with much more of the same would be an absolute wonder, and hopefully that’s what we’re in for.

  • I’ll add my huzzahs to the return of the Duke, er, Aaron McMullan whoever the hell that is.

    Also, love Bill Hicks. Must see this documentary.

  • Blessed again we are with Dukification!

  • Flex

    The documentary is somewhat superficial, nonetheless, very important, because it shows how everything started for Bill Hicks, and there is great archive footage of his early stand-ups. It also makes one feel very interested particularly in his great come back moment, after he gave up drugs and alcohol, and as far as what made him become the Bill Hicks that conquered the UK unfortunately little was said about this period in the movie.

    The final scenes are Hicks’ best moments. And after the late George Carlin there was nobody else who could have filled his shoes and enlightened audiences with greater political insights such as Bill.

  • Shark and Barger recently show up in comments and now an article by the Duke, who no longer identifies himself as such to the masses, so they may not know to what I refer, although that’s not an isolated occurrence. A wonderful trip down memory lane while also existing in the now this is.

    Welcome back and thanks for drawing attention to this film. I was one of the few Americans who enjoyed him when he was around on TV and even opening for Kinison once or twice. He was in the George Carlin mode but rarely let people just laugh without thinking and the mirror was too much for some, especially in America, especially in certain parts, especially at that time.

    I am so looking forward to taking a gander at it because the film by Ron Howard sounds like a terrible idea since it’s going to be by Ron Howard.