Chomsky with dick jokes
A UK DVD review of AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY by Camus
 
"I get a kick out of being an outsider. It allows me
to be creative. I don't like anything in the mainstream
and they don't like me..."
"The world is like a ride in an amusement park. And when you choose
to go on it you think it's real because that's how powerful our minds are.
And the ride goes up and down and round and round. It has thrills and
chills and it's very brightly coloured and it's very loud and it's fun, for a
while. Some people have been on the ride for a long time and they
begin to question: "Is this real, or is this just a ride?" And other
people have remembered, and they come back to us, they say,
"Hey, don't worry, don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride."
And we kill those people."
The tragically unique, Bill Hicks

I would very much like you to re-read that wonderful second quotation. It's stuffed full of truth, honesty and pain and regret and it's bloody funny. It's the shtick Bill Hicks ended his later act with, imparting some powerful ideas that linger on long after the dark poet has shuffled off stage. We can't see him live anymore but the wisdom, heart and humanity of the man are well represented across the media. I spent a good ten minutes making my way through some of his choicest cuts here...

http://thinkexist.com/quotes/bill_hicks/

...and despite my over-familiarity with almost all of them, I still spent nine of those minutes laughing. I just read the quote on the DVD sleeve, one I'd not heard of and have only just stopped laughing. It's not just 'ha ha'. The humour has an almost elemental truth at its roots so it really sticks. It's also so much funnier than the 'joke' plus 'punch-line' routine... Treat yourself. Click away (but only after I've persuaded you to get this DVD and every other Hicks DVD/CD and book out there).

"My name is William Melvin Hicks... Thanks, Dad."

It's almost a cosmic joke that a man who has brought so much wit, enlightenment and common sense into the world should have the surname 'Hicks'. Hick (n, informal, chiefly derogatory): a person who lives in the country, regarded as being unintelligent or provincial. I live in the fucking country! This is a man who was ripped from this planet (at 32, Jesus) just at a time it needed him the most. Bill Hicks is a comedian, yes. (none of this 'was' tense – he's still here in spirit). But to me, this guy is much more. He's a moral philosopher, a prescient soul (steady, now), an American with a thunderingly rational humanist viewpoint, a critic with real bite. Did I mention the dick jokes? For every Bush, there should be a Hicks (equal airtime, equal access to resources). Hicks gave his life's work to freeing his fellow Americans from invisible and debilitating chains but only Europe was prepared to listen en masse. If he relied on corporate greed, political chicanery and cowardice and general all-purpose stupidity to react against, then (if pancreatic cancer hadn't got him), he'd be well served in 2010 at the ripe old age of 49. To have Hicks comment on George Dubya and that self serving, war-mongering, evangelist Blair (keep those tomatoes flying) would be one of my dream nights out.

Hick's searing scatology was excruciatingly near the knuckle (more than once I had to ask myself "Did he just say what I think he said?"). There's a routine where Barbara Bush (Dubya's mom) gets such a disgusting roasting, I'm surprised Hicks made it to his dressing room alive. To use his own quotation, the comedian was "Chomsky with dick jokes..." Noam Chomsky is probably the most famous intellectual critic of the US government (please see my review for Manufacturing Consent, a documentary based on a series of writing Hicks cites as being hugely influential). I'm going to guess Chomsky's dearth of dick jokes lend him more credibility in the long run, but it's Hicks' personal ideas (armed with researched facts) I'm more drawn to. Is it that cliché that if you laugh, you're recognising a truth? There was something about Bill Hicks that made you think if he lived in the middle ages, half the world would be 'Hicksians' right now. Even as a proposed religion, Hicksianity's still a nice thought although you don't need a figurehead to be a rational human being, just someone to remind you every now and again. Every four years we'd have 'Magic Mushroom Day' and we'd all commune and trip as an enormous mass of humanity peering through our collective third eye. Ah, we can dream.

The title of the film is a little more compelling than at first glance. It's not The Bill Hicks Story. It's American – The Bill Hicks Story. As much as that first word has become overly besmirched of late, it's a good idea to remind ourselves of its meaning here in the Hicksian sense. It's an America where 'freedom' was made sacrosanct by law, where religion and state are prised apart in case one unduly affected the other (I know, isn't that quaint?), where you have the right to say anything you like even if it's hateful and dumb. My favourite is the 18th amendment (Prohibition of alcohol...) swiftly followed by the 21st amendment (Repeals the 18th amendment). Isn't that brilliant? Someone should repeal the 2nd amendment (the right to bear arms) but I guess that's not going to happen in my lifetime. The key is in the word 'amendment' – "a change or addition to a legal or statutory document". So as society grows up, so do its laws... Well, after a fashion. In the 18th century things were a tad different to the way things are now and it's a testament to the wisdom of the founding fathers of the New World that their laws are supposed to be amended.

Whoah! This is a review, damn it, not a letter to the world converting it to Hicksianity. And besides, the attainment of the Hicksian ideal is already a reality. It's called Denmark (not sure about the mushrooms) but I digress. Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have done what Bill Hicks thought someone would do – make a biopic documentary which they achieved primarily out of stills animated in that cut out/3D effect to suggest certain events in Hicks' life. At times the effect is pleasing and almost old-fashioned. Sometimes we lurch into cartoonism which is a little distracting. Watching animated vehicles or anything needing to move through frame including shots not focussed on faces, sometimes feel overall a little gimmicky, calling attention to the non-photographic material. But I understand the need not to make a feature out of stills alone. I just prefer the effect when it was subtle and focussed on the original photos themselves and not the graphic add-ons. For my favourite example of this technique, see Pixar's pre-tease trailer for Wall-E.

It's a small gripe and as good a way as any to tell the story of a remarkable man. What lifts everything up by several notches is the editing of the participants' voices. The story is remarkably free of jump cuts in the narrative (32 years in just over three times as many minutes). I've read the biographies and the volume of his own work in print and I have to say that the film more than competes with the experience of getting to know the man through his beloved written word. And as to be expected, there are some cracking archive clips. It was bizarre watching Hicks on stage downing any drink the audience would pass him. He may have had the constitution of a smart, angry ox but the alcohol was another stage he had to work through. He emerged the other side, butterfly-like and found his stride (and his audience, ironically in the UK).

The story plays out (as one would expect) chronologically and there isn't a longueur in the entire 102 minutes (perhaps this is because I was hungry enough to devour anything about this man which would help me understand how he came to be who he was). And with full access to Hicks' nearest and dearest, the film-makers have a treasure trove to rummage through. It's clearly a work of love and appreciation and for that anyone is to be applauded. Kudos to the film-makers (this documentary was way overdue) and if you care about reason and rationality in a world where stupidity is holding sway in the corridors of power and the pulpits of churches, then take this huge and oh-so welcome dose of Hicksianity.

Hugely recommended.

P.S. I was thrilled to find the DVD on sale at Sainsbury's. That says a lot. Well, it says that someone thinks they can make money selling it but the idea of Hicks as Hicks in the mainstream is almost too hypnotic to contemplate.

sound and vision

Presented in anamorphic 16:9, the original video is crisp and the 8mm, 16mm and other video archive material is presented at their best quality (which is my chicken-shit way of saying they're dirty and VHS-tracking lined but who cares?).

The sound is always clear and the 5.1 soundtrack doesn't trouble the sub woofer too much. The rear speakers aren't called into play in any showy way (what would be the point?) but the entire ambience is geared towards listening to the spoken word. There's a subtle score by Mark Daniels and some music inevitably comes from Hicks and friends' compositions so recording quality varies but again, listen to the words! The English subtitles have a subtle element to them. When it's Hicks performing coupled with a voiceover from the interviewees, the latter is placed in italics – hey, these details are important. It means someone cared enough to do it.

extra features

Buckle up. Here we go. There are Extras on both Disk 1 and 2 – all the extra stuff that couldn't be crammed in and there's about 5 juicy hours of it and all of it relevant which is no mean feat when the Extras outnumber the main feature by over three hours.

Disk One

Extended Interviews; Part 1 (58' 54")
For the sake of ease of reading (I know, you didn't think I cared) I'm reviewing the interviews in one piece. Part 1 features interviews on Hicks' childhood and ends when 'the comedy begins...' while Part 2 (on Disk 2) covers the career, decline into alcohol and drug addiction, subsequent rebirth and death. Dwight Slade fills in so many wonderfully observed memories of Bill Hicks as a teenager, you actually begin to feel you're witness to something intimate. And at the end of Part 1, when his comedy partner and best friend Slade, with whom Hicks had such a great reaction from their 2nd stand-up performance, had to move away to Oregon, it's heartbreaking.

The interview subjects are, alphabetically Kevin Booth, John Farneti, Bill Hicks, Lynn Hicks, Mary Hicks, Steve Hicks, Andy Huggins, David Johndrow, James Ladmirault and Dwight Slade. I'll let you figure out who're family and who're friends (duh). From the change of clothing amongst the participants, it's obvious that these interviews took a long time and rightly so. The invasion into the privacy of friends and particularly Hick's affable, tolerant and loving family seems more like the extended visit of a couple of curious neighbours. Again, that's a testament to the film-makers. There is some odd B-Roll of location shooting ambient shots (where Hicks grew up) that really belong in the movie if nowhere at all. It's the only time in the 3 hours we wander from faces. These extended interviews are all about looking at the warmth in the subjects' eyes (unless of course editorially, the film-makers were compelled to include the B-Roll because there was a problem with the visuals).

Each story or insight is tied tightly into Hicks' life and by far the most endearing in this round up of a life is his extraordinary mother who is as judgemental as a cloud. We could all do with mothers like that (my own being a shining example of course). Not judging your offspring when they want to do something crazy (or in Hicks' case, sane to the power of 10 – saving the world one joke and observation at a time) is the hallmark of good parenting. There is some inevitable repetition in the interviews – slices used in the movie's narrative but to excise them in this case would be foolish. Context during the fuller extracts is all. Photographer and friend David Johndrow, talking about Bill giving him Steinbeck's Grapes Of Wrath, actually sheds a passing tear. Again, it's the Hicks effect – lasting and moving.

The startling aspect of this concentrated expression of regard for this man is the fact that Hicks consistently gravitated around like-minded souls (at least when he wasn't scoring drugs). This isn't surprising in anyone's life but the sincerity of purpose in his fellow comedians – the fact they wanted to maintain their own personal integrity – is really shocking to me. Not one sold out. The less said about tortilla-whoring Jay Leno the better. This isn't to say they'd turn down a set on one of the more famous talk-shows but it would be on their own terms. Bill Hicks on TV was Bill Hicks, not some mediocre, cash-craving, chuckle merchant. Like being open to love, you're all too vulnerable when it hurts. Hicks' trouble with being pulled at the last minute on his numerous Late Night With David Letterman appearances was like being dumped by the love of your life. Integrity has its costs and Hicks paid through both nostrils.

Despite his rationalism and scepticism, Hicks had a healthy dose of spirituality and as my dear friend Richard Franklin once observed, coincidences could not be coincidences every single time (I disagreed). There was a poignancy in that fact that Hicks died at 11.20pm. One of his earliest and best friends, Dwight Slade, was performing in a shitty night club in Canada spilling out his own rage into his 80-strong audience. When in high school both boys wore the numbers '9' and '20' on their shirts while playing football and used these numbers to speak in code in their many telephone calls as kids. The time difference between where they both were at the time of Hicks' death was two hours... 9.20. If I were Slade, I'd probably interpret that coincidence somewhat reverently.

In some ways, this selection of interviews is by far the more detailed Bill Hicks Story and so well worth watching for all the fascinating and terribly moving detail.

Featurettes:

Austin Panel at SxSW featurette (9' 56")
The SxSW is an Austin, Texas annual music and film festival where the movie was obviously playing. Moderator and co-director Matt Harlock share some Hicks memories with four of the interview participants. There is some repetition (they are great stories so they don't get tired). But it's also nice to see the interaction between this group of friends all celebrating their deeply missed friend and colleague. There's also a lovely cut to Hicks mother Mary nodding and smiling in recognition of a story told by Hicks' brother, Steve.

Dominion Tour featurette (7' 25")
Mother Mary and brother Steve at London's Dominion Theatre meet with director (Chris Bould) and producer (Charles Brand) of Hicks' Channel 4 Special Revelations (which is one of Hicks' finest hours – performed in front of an appreciative and huge audience – who'd have thunk it?). The inserts of the 'cowboy riding into town over Tower bridge' are priceless. Bill Hicks could not ride a horse. No problem, this is TV. One short insert of a nervous Hicks on a white charger and cut to the stunt rider... I must revisit Revelations. I'm sort of surprised not remembering Hicks' first words being "That wasn't me on that fucking horse, man..." Maybe that was the only time he didn't tell the truth on stage.


Disk Two

Extended Interviews; Part 2 (2 hrs 1' 14")
See above.

Featurettes:

Festivals in UK & USA with the Hicks featurette (14' 19")
Mary and siblings, Lynn and Steve Hicks at the London Film Festival, 2009 realising time and time again how Bill Hicks still touches people and how his material still resonates. Lynn's judgement of the film is quite moving... She says "It's our brother." Not sure how higher a compliment can go. The family and director than take the movie to the afore mentioned SxSW Festival in Austin and then to Toronto at the Hotdog Festival. The commitment of the family to the film is extraordinary. There's a lot of love in the Hicks household. The interviews continue at the start of the theatrical run in London

Hicks at Abbey Road Studios – re-mastering Bill's tracks featurette (4' 18")
Research unearthed cassette tapes of Hicks' more sensitive musical accomplishments (he was a Beatles fan like one or two of us) so the idea of remixing the tapes at Abbey Road Studios was too much for the family to resist. And they did the Zebra Crossing – how could they not?

Kevin shoots his film in LA featurette (3' 42")
Moved to make a film on the drug war in his home country, Kevin Booth describes his experiences hooking up with notorious ex-gang leaders and describing how those that are elected to protect the people were the ones he was most fearful of. That's a movie I'm looking forward to...

15th Anniversary tribute featurette (7' 39")
The most moving of the Extras – or is it the culmination of love and support for this guy that's finally got to me? My eyes are wet, go figure. I guess part of that is that it's the UK (god, am I feeling patriotic? Not a bit, just a little proud of this island, that's all) that really 'got' Hicks. This short coverage of the 15th Anniversary of his death shows a London party I would loved to have attended.

Comedy School featurette (18' 13")
A breakdown of the stand up's art and craft by some of Bill's friends, most notably Dwight Slade. There is some repetition here but it's still good. If Slade is Bill Hicks' age (my age) the bastard must have taken some rejuvenation drug or something. The guy looks 35... But he's erudite, smart and has terrific recall.

David Johndrow's photography featurette
Although advertised on the marketing (and unless it's an Easter Egg) this feature's not available on the DVD. A shame but I guess Johndrow's work is well served in the actual movie. Googling the above advertised Extra title leads me straight back to this site's own press release so it's obviously nowhere else in the universe...

Dwight in London featurette (5' 31")
Dwight Slade continues his own love affair with London while performing stand up over here. Again, this guy is worth listening to on and off the stage.

Making of Arizona Bay featurette (7' 05")
This features rare footage of Hicks and Kevin Booth in the studio recording (and re-recording) Arizona Bay. Hicks was deeply into music and struggled to find a way to meld the two disciplines into a single presentation. Am I alone in thinking that the music on his albums was too much of a distraction, even the few pieces that eventually made it on to the CD? It's enough for Hicks to be Hicks and not indulge in music as a periphery to what he was sublimely good at.

The Ranch featurette (7' 31")
Kevin Booth takes us to his parents' ranch where the many infamous mushroom adventures into inner and outer space occurred. Like Dwight Slade, Booth is an affable and low-key subject but again, ("you know...") the times he spent with Hicks are so fondly recalled it's not just a friend he lost but a whole way of seeing the world. There are some lovely stories in this featurette and well worth a look.

8 deleted scenes
But the disc says 7. Who you gonna believe? These are some of the movie's off-cuts. There's archive film of teenage Hicks and Dwight messing around (39") as an illustration of Hicks being able to outrun the jocks who wanted to beat him up; a phone call between the two friends (52"); providing Rodney Dangerfield with material (1' 13"); Dwight and Bill's teenage sense of humour – hearing that unaffected laughter, sweet. (24"); Ninja Bachelor Party was Hick's first move into the movie business (shot on VHS!) The actual footage is hilarious in such a cheesy way (1' 50"); Stress, Hicks' first rock and roll band, shows us noise does not a band make (1' 26"); James Ladmirault and Hicks sharing the fact that despite their natures, they couldn't get their love lives running smoothly (32").

4 early scenes
Here are previous versions (one assumes) of scenes in the film. Here's the Houston House where the close friends and comics gathered (34"); Bill's parents on seeing their son on stage (1' 34"); POV of a plane taking off... "Nothing's more important than the work..." (29"); Bill's earliest joke writing attempts and using his brother as a judge (30"). (1' 19")

3 alternative scenes
Bill calls his friends for his last mushroom trip (2' 08"); Teenage rebellion highlights one very important fact, that his parents were used but as caricatures in his act. There's never a sense that Hicks was at all antagonistic – apart from normal teenage feelings - towards his mother. (1' 45"). Wimberley was a family retreat and seeing 'Goat Boy' Hicks lovingly relating to his baby relatives is something of a mind-fuck but then stage-Hicks was an act. Seeing these poignant home movies keeps reminding you of that fact (1' 23").

18 rare clips
Four clips from Hicks' sets at the Annex on girls, eating, scary movies and mom comes to town; (1' 28", 1' 24", 3' 17", 1' 42" respectively). All great stuff.

At the Funny Bone (1' 13") Hicks muses on UFOs.

At the Indianapolis, two clips; Looking and acting like your dad (I can relate heavily to that. I wonder if there's some sort of weird metamorphosis, like the change in The Howling but it takes 50 years and is significantly less painful). I have no idea what a Goober is...  (1' 54"). The 2nd clip has Hicks celebrating the strength of the Jewish people – having the power to kill our Lord! (58")

Outlaws get Religion – Jesus is pissed: (2' 52") Hicks lays into evangelists as well he should.

Outlaws get Religion – School Rivalry: (32") A muse on how hatred gets a foothold.

Sacremento – Housekeeping (2' 44") When does Do Not Disturb mean several insistent offers of fresh towels?

Sane Man – Bill, You Don't Fit In (1' 14") Demographic demolition.

Sane Man – Non Smokers (2' 42") The nascent famous smoking routine is worked with an interactive audience. This is by far the most interesting aspect of the early Bill Hicks. I was introduced to him via Channel 4's Dominion Theatre but the bulk of his career was playing small clubs where the audience were brought into the show (and often mercilessly criticised).

Spellbinders – In Hospital (1' 44") I'm trying to recall when Hicks was in hospital aside from his last year. Was it the enraged Scotsman that broke his leg or is it just Hicks with new, fictitious material?

West Palm Beach – Childbirth (2' 05") Another nascent routine and the most surprising aspect? He's wearing shorts... Well, he's in L.A., what do we expect?

West Palm Beach – Did God Make A Mistake? (1' 59") His beloved mushrooms 'against the law...'

Bill & Dwight – Bat & Ball (36") More home movie footage of the two actually doing Laurel & Hardyesque slapstick.

Bill at Waco (3' 12") This was the one event that really wedged open the abyss between Hicks and his own government as covered by Hicks and Co. I never realised that Hicks was there before the FBI torched the place. I always believed that he caught some footage on local TV (he still did exactly that) and that that footage (forgive me) fired his passion about the subject. But he was there... He looks like he'd put on weight. I'm not certain but maybe he was on chemo then and that's one of the side effects.

Ninja Bachelor Party Trailer (1' 06") Hicks as a Chinese Kung Fu Master? This is utterly silly but then I guess it must have seemed hilarious to a teenage boy (and by then every teenage boy with any access to media was utterly fascinated by Bruce Lee, here played by Dwight Slade I think).

Bill's Audio Clips

Bill lonely in LA, 1981 journal clip (2' 58")
Hicks in L.A. at a low point. He's been told he's good but there's no market for that talent. This reminds me so much of Nick Drake, an artist we lost too early too.

Bill leaves New York for LA, 1992 (3' 58")
Hicks heads out of New York to cross the continent. "I'm gonna wake up old..." he says into the tape recorder. We wish (as in we wish he got to live out a life and not just a tantalising preview of one). There is a very strong sense that he's talking to the god he really went for (and I've said this before on this site). Enthusiasm means the god within you. This is a very touching diary entry.

Interview with Nick Doody 1992 (27' 07")
Doody was an Oxford student who interviewed Hicks and from that he was offered to open as a warm up for the great man and this kick-started his career. Hicks was just this positive force for good worldwide. The interview touches on many favourite subjects (Doody had only Hick's few acts to go on as research) but the fact he'd been doing stand up himself meant that he inadvertently opened a door with new questions and Hicks invited him in. It was a pleasure hearing this interview and I was crushed to hear that Doody was busy in a play after Hicks invited him to intro and maybe do a short set before the main event, Bill Hicks in Oxford. That must have been crushing for him. This is a major find because there are so few instances of hearing Hicks talk about his work and not just defending it. Bravo Nick.

Audience reactions Trailer (1' 43")
With shots taken from a lot of the Extras material, this trailer highlights American: The Bill Hicks Story from audience comments with the witty start of three people confessing they didn't know who he was. I hope with the release of this DVD, it broadens his fan base. As I said earlier, (but wrote later as it happens, in the summary) someone's got to do it, get that message out, Hick's message. I raise a glass (I'm not drinking because I'm working which doesn't usually stop me) and would light a cigarette (past times) to Bill Hicks.

summary

If you like this guy, you need this DVD. If you abhor this guy, you need it even more. Enraged and impassioned rationality does not come along often especially from someone so pure (and I'm well aware how odd that sounds talking about an ex-alcoholic, drug abuser). But there is purity in his worldview, something that embraces the spiritual (with conventional religion jettisoned at the starting block). Maybe his ideals could not work in any practical way (given current western capitalistic and tribal societies and the ideas-landlock that exists in the religiously shackled Middle East) but hell, his world is one I want to live in. So let's get to it. It's a big job and someone's got to do it. I'll leave you with what made me laugh on the spine of the packaging. It says it all.

***

"Folks, you can evolve. Did you know that? Okay – I'll go first."

American: The Bill Hicks Story

UK 2009
102 mins
directors
Matt Harlock
Paul Thomas
starring
Bill Hicks
Kevin Booth
John Farneti
Lynn Hicks
Mary Hicks
Steve Hicks
Andy Huggins
David Johndrow
James Ladmirault
Dwight Slade

DVD details
Region 2
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Extended interviews
Austin Panel at SxSW featurette
Dominion Tour featurette
Festivals in UK & USA with the Hicks featurette
Hicks at Abbey Road Studios – re-mastering Bill's tracks featurette
Kevin shoots his film in LA featurette
15th Anniversary tribute featurette
Comedy School featurette
Dwight in London featurette
Making of Arizona Bay featurette
The Ranch featurette
Deleted scenes
Early scenes
Alternative scenes
Rare clips
Audio clips
Bill leaves New York for LA, 1992
Interview with Nick Doody 1992
Audience reactions Trailer
distributor
2entertain
release date
27 September 2010
review posted
3 October 2010