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American: The Bill Hicks Story review

As renowned for his love of the lethal weed as his scabrous diatribes on religious hypocrisy, big government and corporate culture, Bill Hicks is bigger now – 16 years on from his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 – than he ever was alive.

And his posthumous profile will only be boosted further once Russell Crowe gets round to playing him in a bigscreen biopic currently in development.

But chances are you’ll get a better idea of exactly who Hicks was from this lovingly assembled homage from British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, an intimate tribute that pays as much attention to Bill the man as it does to Bill the stand-up.

Instead of the usual assortment of famous contemporaries, American lets his friends and family do the talking, illustrating their reminiscences with home movies and photographs artfully animated to provide a constantly morphing backdrop.

This approach allows Harlock and Thomas to explore how Hicks’ childhood and upbringing informed his bilious, confrontational performance style. Yet it also puts a human face on a comic whose splenetic, chain-smoking schtick could often be alienating, not to mention somewhat overbearing.

The highly watchable result goes some way to identifying why Hicks remains so revered, beyond the obvious fascination with an artist gone too soon who spent much of his brief life ignored and censored (most notoriously by David Letterman).

What it isn’t, however, is particularly funny, laughs apparently being less important to its subject than the more serious business of holding a corrupt establishment to account. That said, he still shits on Michael McIntyre.
 

Always more appreciated overseas than he was at home, Hicks would have no doubt relished American’s provocative title. Likely as not, he’d also have welcomed this well-crafted bio-doc’s desire to show what he was like, not just what he did.

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