HotDocs Preview: American: The Bill Hicks Story

There are many cult figures of whom you come into contact with every now and then whose work you enjoy, you understand their cult status, but you know very little about them. Bill Hicks is one of those people for me. Whilst in university it was guaranteed that there would be at least one copy of his DVD Totally in every student house and there was always a resurgence of love for him as those DVDs were passed around.

Of what I’d seen I thought he was extremely funny and even more poignant in the political climate going on when I was introduced to him. When I learnt a documentary was being made I was intrigued as I realised I knew nothing more about him than that he had died fairly young. At the time I thought it unusual that the film was being made my two British directors but have since learnt that Hicks never really made it in his native US and his death, to pancreatic cancer at 32, was just while he was on the verge of doing so (I could be wrong on that but it’s what the internet tells me).

In many ways this is a standard biopic-style documentary with friends and relatives describing Hicks and his life through talking heads, archive of his home videos and early stand-up, but in equal measure it’s also captivating in its different approach to how it handles the enormous amount of photographs and footage that make up the majority of the film. This contradiction plays beautifully with Hicks’ life story which sees the usual story of drink, drugs, fall from grace etc. except that in Hicks’ case he got sober and became even funnier.

Animation makes up around 70% of the film and it really is to its benefit. Rather than using static archive footage and photographs, the directors, who did the animation themselves, blend the two and bring still photos to life in a subtle way that extends the emotion felt at the time the photograph was taken to involve it in the narrative. This creates a far more intimate portrait than you’d expect and really allows the footage of his stand up to have even more impact especially as you see the tone of his comedy shift from being fairly tame at the start to the anger building to his vicious, and hilarious, political style at the end.

Filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have created a great balance with this film that will serve as a great introduction to anyone unfamiliar with Bill Hicks whilst also really pleasing his huge fanbase.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is showing at HotDocs on Thu, May 06 at 7:15 pm and Sat, May 08 at 6:30 pm. Official website is here

The red band trailer is below the jump.