Some people simply have a gift. Put them on a stage, hand them a microphone, shine a spotlight, let them speak, and through their words, they will illuminate the world (and make you die laughing as they do so). Stand-up comedian Bill Hicks was such a person. When he spoke, you listened, and the world was a much happier place for it. While popular in the UK, Hicks was mostly underappreciated in his time, and sadly passed away from cancer at the age of just thirty two. A true original, his impact on the comedy world is still felt today and the documentary film 'American: The Bill Hicks Story' tells the complete tale of Hicks's interesting, but far too brief life.
Featuring participants that include Hicks's family, closest friends, and fellow comedians, the documentary is a comprehensive chronicle of an intelligent and deep man who chose to make people laugh as his lifelong endeavor. Basically, everything you would want to know is covered, going through his early rebellious years right through his final curtain call. The film doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of its subject's life, either, and Hicks's difficult descent into alcohol and drug abuse is featured extensively. All of the interviewees come across as knowledgeable and incredibly sincere. You can really tell how much this man meant to each of them, and the stories they tell are both deeply personal and universally insightful. The overall arc of Hicks's life is truly remarkable, but not in some overdramatized manner. This isn't a story about a man who climbed the tallest mountain, or sailed around the world. This is a story about a regular guy who wanted to make people laugh by sharing a piece of himself, by literally ripping open his chest, tearing out his heart and baring his very soul through a microphone, and in its own way, that's an endeavor just as amazing and inspiring as any.
Filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas bring a fairly unique and interesting style to the proceedings. Deciding to eschew traditional talking head interviews, they instead form something livelier and a bit more in the spirit of their groundbreaking subject. Narration from all the interviewees is placed against wonderfully animated sequences that use actual photographs of Hicks and his friends to recreate the events discussed. The style is rather simplistic, but charming. Intercut between these sequences and guiding narrations are numerous clips from archive footage of Hicks in home movies, as well as amateur and professional tapings of his various stand-up routines.
While the newly created animations and interviews drive the story, the filmmakers wisely realize that there really is no better way to reveal the life of Bill Hicks, than to let the man speak for himself. All of the archive footage displaying Hicks's gradual evolution -- from charming, straight-laced teenage comedian, to boozed-out angry drunk, to radical sober master of his craft, and finally, to a more reflective, but not defeated man who sees a far too abrupt end coming just over the horizon -- are the true highlights of the movie. There is a reason his comedy is growing more popular as each day passes, and as soon as you hear his voice boom through your speakers, you know you are about to hear something not only funny, but powerful, insightful, and most importantly, from the heart.
While I was somewhat familiar with Hicks before watching this film, my knowledge of the man didn't extend far beyond a few snippets of his various acts. Now after watching his full story told in such an interesting, thoughtful, entertaining, and most of all, honest way, I can truly say I am a fan. If you're already an admirer of Bill Hicks, this film is certainly a worthy and respectful look at the intriguing comedian, and if you're not, you certainly will be by the time the credits roll. Hicks was a man who spoke his mind and was not afraid to be his own person. Even though he met a tragic and untimely end, he celebrated life right up until the universe decided to prematurely yank him from the stage. Though, why wouldn't he? After all, it's all just a ride.
'American: The Bill Hicks Story' comes to Blu-ray in a 1080i/AVC transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Like many documentaries, footage comes from a variety of sources and is mainly a combination of archive material, newly conducted interviews, and original animated sequences created from photographs and previous recordings. Due to the variety of sources used, the presentation is quite erratic, but always watchable.
The majority of the footage included is of old recordings of Hicks's various stand-up acts taken mostly from standard definition consumer and professional tape. These scenes don't look terribly good and suffer from various upscaling artifacts, noise, lack of detail, and all of the basic limitations inherent to their medium. Other footage seems to come from 8mm, 16mm, and high definition digital, and all vary in quality.
Along with the comedy acts, the bulk of the remaining transfer is made up of wonderfully realized animated sequences put together from old photographs. These, and the few new onscreen interviews, look pretty good with some nice detail. Black levels, contrast, and colors vary wildly between sources, and while never impressive, they still get the job done just fine.
While not a great video presentation, the faults here are entirely a result of the limitations of the material used. Considering what the filmmakers had to work with, this is about as good as this footage could ever hope to look, and the content more than shines through.
The film is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track with optional English subtitles. This is a pretty basic track, but suits the content well.
Dialogue from all the new interviews are clean and crisp. While there are some pops and crackles in some of the archive footage, they still come across fairly well, and are always easy to understand. Surround usage is minimal, but some effects such as crowd laughter do get sent to the rears in a natural and subtle manner. Directionality is mostly absent and dynamic range is pretty flat. Bass has a little bit of kick with some of the music used in the soundtrack, but it's never really noteworthy. Balance between the elements is good, and the narration of the participants is always at the forefront guiding the story.
Overall, this is a perfectly fine audio track, that presents the information, and more importantly, Hicks's comedy, in a nice and clear manner.
Uh… wow. The BBC has done a pretty amazing job here, packing this 2-disc set with several hours of extra bonus material. All of the supplements are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital stereo tracks and optional English subtitles unless otherwise noted.
'American: The Bill Hicks Story' is a creative and truly inspirational look at a fascinating and hilarious comedian. The video presentation isn't the strongest, but it looks about as good as the material can and the audio is decent enough. The BBC has provided an overwhelming assortment of actually interesting supplements that will give fans of Hicks hours of material to go through. This is a great disc and a wonderful film that comes highly recommended.