One of that breed was the late stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, who died in Little Rock in 1994 from pancreatic cancer. He was only 32 years old at the time, but his biting wit and unflinching pronouncements on the failings of American society have made him a comic's comic to this day. Huge in Europe and gaining a loyal following in the United States when he passed, Hicks was well on his way to becoming one of the titans, installed alongside folks like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Charlie Chaplin in the grinning pantheon. As is, he's remembered as one of the greats taken too soon — a man whose cerebral, angry, tough-love style makes today's crop of corny puppeteers, faux-rednecks and culture-obsessed bitch-and-gripers seem more than a little bloodless by comparison.
Hicks' story is retold, beginning to end, in the new documentary "American: The Bill Hicks Story." Made entirely from standup routine footage, interviews with Hicks' family and friends, and carefully-animated still photographs, it's a truly great documentary which does what all great biographic documentaries do: makes you want to climb in bed with the subject, spoon, and have him whisper the truth into your ear.
As seen in the film, Hicks was always much bigger in the UK than in America. Though there's some question of whether our "Daily Show" world would have caught up to him by now, in the 1980s and early '90s his no-bullshit approach to topics ranging from abortion to psychedelic drugs to the Iraq War was a little too much for American audiences to handle. As a result, Hicks often found himself playing 900-seat theatres in Britain, only to return to half-full comedy clubs in the States — not to mention belligerent drunks in the parking lot, many of whom didn't take kindly to his opinions. Famously, his last appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman Show was pulled because his subject matter was too hot, even for a late-night audience. It's a measure of the comedians' cult status that Letterman apologized to Hicks' mother and finally showed the routine in its entirety last year. We're thinking folks aren't going to be worried whether a Larry the Cable Guy set didn't air a decade and a half after the fact.
The film and its amazing look are the brainchild of British filmmakers Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock. Though Hicks' connection to Little Rock is fairly thin — his family (but not Hicks) moved here from Houston when he was 17, and Hicks returned to his parents' house just before his death in February, 1994 — Matt Harlock said the city played an important role in his life. There are many scenes from the doc shot in Little Rock. "Bill and Little Rock have a special connection," Harlock said. "Hicks was a Southerner through and through."
Co-director Thomas says that American audiences might have finally caught up with Hicks' attitudes by now, and figures that he could have been able to find more mainstream acceptance in the U.S. had he lived. Thomas said that the film's colorful, photo-animated style — part Ken Burns, part acid trip — arose out of a desire to tell Hicks' story in a unique way. It was a decision that would cost both he and Harlock four years, much of that spent painstakingly crafting the CGI used to bring still photos of Hicks to life. "As Bill's story was so unique, the challenge was in finding a strong enough new way to tell it," Thomas said. "We knew there was a huge archive of photos of Bill and so the idea of an animated photographic storytelling approach arose, eschewing talking heads and allowing the viewer to be fully immersed into the world of the characters, much closer in form to a narrative method." Given that Bill Hicks was a man who so often criticized America — the military; our obsession with status and consumption; the prejudices woven into our societal DNA — it might strike some as odd that the film about his life is called "American." Harlock, however, doesn't see it that way. "Bill was captivated from an early age with the promise of the American Dream," Harlock said. "It seemed to him that the American people ignored or were apathertic to the vice-like grip that American religion, big business and the media had on them and he wanted to do something about it. He wanted to offer them a new way of seeing their world."