Last week I was lucky enough to get free tickets to a preview screening of American: The Bill Hicks Story. I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Hicks since the early 1990s. To my eternal regret, I discovered him about two weeks after his last gig in the UK. I remember first watching a video of Relentless* — the Montreal show that paved the way for his international success — and realising immediately that almost all stand-up comedy I’d encountered ’til that point had been complete shit.
At the time I was fascinated by the idea of rockstar-as-shaman; the jester figure who nonetheless holds the power to effect real change… shifting consciousness and perspective. And by extension, culture and politics. I saw Bill Hicks doing the same thing in a different medium. The least mediated of all ‘the media’, in fact. People were showing up, and paying, just to hear him talk. And not always simply because he made them laugh… some at least, wanted to listen to him proselytize. To hear what he had to say.
And I was one of them. When his comedy veered too far into polemic he’d joke about being “at the wrong meeting”, but I always wanted to know where that other meeting was. And could I go? Even now, sixteen years after his death, a new film about Bill Hicks is an exciting prospect to me.
But is it an exciting film? Well, the first thing to point out is that any film liberally peppered with clips of Hicks at work is going to find it hard to make me dislike it. And I certainly didn’t. But I’d be lying if I said it was all I’d hoped for. If anything I was itching for more clips of Bill and less of the surrounding narrative. Not because an exciting film can’t be made about the life of Bill Hicks, but because this one sadly falls a little short.
Perhaps there is an inevitability to that, though. When the subject of a biography is famous for his consummate skill as a speaker, it’s always going to be a let-down when most of the film involves other people speaking about him. In many ways, the 1994 documentary (It’s Just A Ride) produced by Channel 4 and found on the Totally Bill Hicks DVD is better because it tells more of the story through Bill’s own performances.
Using animated photo montages and the occasional ‘talking head’, American: The Bill Hicks Story is told in a rather matter-of-fact manner that never really gets at the deeper issues that inspired and drove him. We’re told about his strict parents, religious upbringing and consequent rebellion against that authority. We learn of his battle with alcohol, his psychedelic awakening and his sense of futility when faced with the twin walls of indifference and hostility that the American public threw up around him. But it’s all conveyed in a rather blank and unengaging way. It’s like someone reading out the recipe for your favourite meal, but never allowing you to taste it.
Sixteen years ago Bill Hicks became one of my major influences. Mix tapes I put together at the time had snippets of his material between some of the tracks. Phrases and phrasing from his routines became shared jokes among my friends; and not always because they were the funniest lines. Often it was because Hicks simply got to the root of an issue more succinctly than anyone else could… is there a better analogy for the US military-industrial complex than “Pull up G-12”? Can anyone top his “… so I said “forgive me” as an example of the deep contradictions we routinely gloss over in our lives? Thanks to Bill Hicks it became possible to enunciate the words “Drink Coke” in such a way as to make reference to the inherently pornographic nature of commercial advertising and the tendency of modern society to reduce even the most sacred of things to yet more fuel for the engines of profit… to be consumed and shat out like everything else. All that; merely by adding a pause and a particular intonation to an existing advertising slogan.
Even today, among fans of Bill Hicks, that short-hand is still going strong. When a TV commercial tries to sell us something using the music of a once-respected artist, the phrase “sucking Satan’s pecker” comes unbidden to our minds. When we hear yet another X-Factor wannabe popstar clone sleepwalk through a classic song, we silently scream “play from your fucking heart!” at our TV or radio. And every time a politician scares us with tales of some foreign threat to our way of life, we see Bill Hicks playing the role of Jack Palance in Shane.
Hicks was an incredibly funny man. Not to everyone’s taste, certainly, but if you got him then you really got him. Beyond that, however, he was a cultural commentator and social critic with truly rare insight. A man who courageously spoke the truth even when he knew it was torpedoing his own career. In our modern world of crass commercialism and unfettered consumption, where the corporate media is working overtime to hide from us the consequences of our suicidal lifestyles, the voice of Bill Hicks is sorely missed.
As for American: The Bill Hicks Story? Any film that allows you to see snippets of Bill’s stand-up on the big screen is to be recommended. And perhaps the fact that — as a longtime fan — there was little in the film that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t already know, means that I’m being unfairly critical on what may well be a wonderful treat for those less familiar with his work. Overall, it’s far from a ‘bad’ film. And if it turns a few more people onto the work of the great man… then it’s a very welcome addition to the unjustly slim body of work by — and about — Bill Hicks.
* Those of you looking to track down Relentless should be warned that the 2006 DVD release is rather poor when compared with the original VHS. Firstly it’s a different performance (same festival, different night) and Hicks isn’t having quite as good a show. On top of that, the image quality — bizarrely — is worse than the video. But most annoyingly of all, almost 15 minutes of material has been mysteriously left out. The DVD still represents a great hour of stand-up, but if you can track down an old VHS copy, you’ll have a much better experience.