This fine documentary opens with a simple but salient point: who do we pay to talk to us? Politicians? Perhaps. Pastors? Maybe sometimes… The answer is comics. Comedians are the only people to whom we offer our money and say, “please talk to me… make me laugh at myself and the things around me.” In an age of global hostility, fear, and repression of thought and individuality, the voice of the comic is more essential than ever. We need comedians to remind us how farcical life is; and to poke fun at the institutions and zeitgeists that too easily become writ.
Bill Hicks understood the importance of this role from an early age. As a restless teenager – trapped in his Southern Baptist Texan townhouse with his all-American, college-graduate family – Hicks would sneak out and head for the only comedy club within a million miles of his home… the Houston Comix Annex. Hicks quickly became renowned for his clean, ‘high-school-kid’ brand of comedy and was taken under the wing of Steve Epstein’s fast-talking, hard-drinking comedy troupe, ‘The Texas Outlaw Comics’.
By his early twenties Hicks was already a legend on the Texan comedy scene, but he knew that his comedy could reach greater heights and deal with much wider issues than growing up in a Texan Baptist household. He began experimenting with hallucinogenic mushrooms, and would sit by a remote lake with a few trusted friends and explore the infinite possibilities of philosophy, consciousness, and existence.
This might all sound a bit heavy for comedy, and it certainly took Hicks a long time (and an almost fatal battle with alcoholism) before he really learnt how to incorporate his esotericism and staunch criticism of American society into his comedy routines. These routines – which began around 1989 with ‘Sane Man’, when Hicks was at the ripe old age of 28 – should be immortalised and filed away in the library of Congress with the works of Whitman and Hemingway. The raw simplicity, the fervent passion, the searing love for his common man that forced him to criticise society with all the spit and power he could muster, make Bill Hicks one of the most important spokespersons for Reagan’s America.
Hicks was a product of a forgotten generation of Americans, growing up in the 1970s, who couldn’t understand what had happened to the gusto of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ or the purity of spirit and love that inspired the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Vietnam had killed the American spirit, and everything that came after it further distorted and twisted the American Dream into a dogmatic society of thoughtless and unquestioning pawns who were free to do whatever they wanted… just so long as they wanted to do what they were told.
But no matter how much energy Hicks threw at his performances, mainstream America was not ready to hear his message. He achieved international fame and was cherished and idolised in Canada and his spiritual home, the UK; but he was criminally unappreciated in his beloved homeland, and was left to perform in the same old clubs on the same old comedy routes that he had been peddling since his teen years.
In 1993, just as he was beginning to achieve the mainstream platform he so desperately desired (not because he wanted fame, but because he wanted people to hear him) Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and passed away within a year. He spent his final months touring, creating what many consider to be the finest and most passionate stand-up performances in the history of stand-up comedy. His friends could not understand why he had become such an unstoppable force; they didn’t realise it was simply the desperation of a great man to immortalise his message before he was dragged away from this earth.
Hicks’ last performance was, in his own opinion, the finest of his career. He was invited onto the David Letterman show (the only mainstream show to have shown him any support in his career) and delivered an extraordinary rebuke to America, largely based around the recent Waco massacre. The performance was cut from the final broadcast, and the network claimed that Hicks’ views were to ‘dangerous’ for mainstream broadcast.
Throughout his life Hicks was ignored and chastised as anti-American; but in fact, as with so many great insubordinates, it was his deep love for his country that inspired him to fight back against the forces of corruption and lethargy. It was too great a struggle in the 1980s, but in the 15 years since his death, the rise of the internet and a stuttering revival of American liberalism has allowed Hicks’ stock to rise. His fanbase is growing at an unprecedented rate, and DVD and CD sales have mushroomed inline with the growth of youtube and the revelation of previously unseen clips. The culmination of all this groundwork, and arguably the culmination of Hicks’ entire career, is this documentary.
In Hicks’ final days he returned to his family home and forced his mother to sit with him while he took her through his entire collection of photos and VHS recordings. When she asked him why he was doing this, he explained that someday, somebody might want to make a documentary about him.
15 years later, British TV producers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have graciously and expertly taken up the mantle. They have created an honest and simple documentary relying solely on the lucid and evocative memories of Hicks’ friends and family, and Hicks mountain of personal photos and video recordings. The Hicks estate have made it clear that this is the only time they will open up their lives to such a far-reaching project, and so this really is the final word on one of the most important men in the history of the American entertainment industry.
The film employs a revolutionary animation technique that allowed the filmmakers to animate old photographs, adding dimensions and colour and movement to them so that the viewer is transported into Bill’s world not just by the absorbing commentary, but also by the visceral images.
The live footage is also expertly blended into the narrative, so that Bill seems to jump out of the film and onto the stage to perform some of the material that has just been explored. This allows viewers to take a completely new perspective on material that may or may not be familiar to them. Hicks’ fans will surely relish becoming entangled in the trials and tribulations of his life while watching him rage against the dying of the American Dream, and they will feel so much closer to this complex and inspiring idol by the end of the film.
It is difficult to tell how this film will perform theatrically, but this critic certainly hopes that it will achieve the success that these filmmakers, and Bill Hicks, deserve. This wonderful film has recorded a life and immortalised a great man, and that is all one can ask of the cinema.