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American: The Bill Hicks Story (Blu-ray Review)

Getting into this disc, I was aware who comedian Bill Hicks was, but I had not watched much of his stand up.  Now consistently ranked high on lists concerning the top stand up comedians of all time, Bill Hicks unfortunately passed away in 1994 at the age of 32, due to pancreatic cancer.  Hicks was known for evolving his comedy act into a much darker showcase of his humor, where he developed lots of controversial material involving social commentary in regards to issues like consumerism and pop culture in general, as well as literally challenging the audience during his shows.  This film is a documentary about his life and evolution as a comedian, featuring lots of archival footage and interviews with those closest to him.

Film:

This documentary serves as a straight forward biography of the life of Bill Hicks.  The story is told through the memories of those who were closest to him, which includes various family members and friends.  Despite being raised in a Southern Baptist household, we learn early on about what drove Hicks to wanting to be a comedic entertainer and how he would go about getting laughs and performing comedic skits with his friend, Dwight Slade, when they were in high school.  As the story continues, Hicks moves up to performing at a comedy club and continued to gain recognition for how well he is doing.  This eventually leads to Hicks’ and Slade’s brief move to Los Angeles, before Hicks has decided he’d rather find his comedic voice back home in Texas.

As the film and Hicks’ life went on, the evolution of his act seemed to be based around the new experiences in his life, which one would think to include drugs and alcohol, but it really didn’t.  He dabbled in these acts, but it is not something that took over his life.  Aside from the on and off battle with smoking, Hicks would go on to rid himself of the more clean cut elements of his act in favor of approaching edgier material and finding ways to provoke his audience, whether it be through genuinely thought provoking commentary delivered in his comedic voice or by actually calling out people and making them feel uncomfortable.  It was an interesting and too brief journey for Hicks.

Directed and produced by Paul Thomas and Matt Harlock, ‘American’ uses a combination of interviews, animation, and archive footage, including many previously unseen performances, to bring Bill Hicks’ story to life.  The interviews are traditional enough, but the animation is kind of neat, as it is handled in a cut-and-past type way, which lends an interesting look to the documentary.  The archive footage is also quite entertaining and interesting, as we get to see Hicks literally transform over the course of the film, watching his early days of stand up change into the type of acts that he would perform later in his life.

With a film like this, the best way I can judge it is by thinking to myself how well the material kept me engaged.  This logic could basically go towards all movies I watch, but it is important for a documentary, as the film could easily slide into boredom for me if the story is not being told well enough and just feels like an audio version of facts being stated.  For ‘American’, it pretty much goes through the same motions of any kind of biographical documentary, but I was interested in Bill Hicks’ life as the subject matter.  I think the only real problem I had was in not quite seeing what had led him down a path of becoming an edgier and edgier comedian.  It is in this area that the film seemed to acknowledge more that he did become this way and not why, beyond some facts stated, which could have been assumed by the viewer.  It is a matter of portraying a character, which I think got lost in the way the film wanted to share all of the positive facts about Hicks’ life.

Overall, I do think American: The Bill Hicks Story is a solid documentary, which mostly does a fine job in chronicling the life of comedian Bill Hicks.  In watching the film, I was saddened by watching him go as the film reached its conclusion.  He certainly seemed to be an interesting character and I would have been intrigued by what the future could have brought to him, had he lived a longer life.  While this documentary only does so much in truly delving deep into Hicks’ life, I did find it to have enough visual flourish and nice enough editing to keep things interesting.

Video:

It almost seems unfair to knock this disc for its video quality, as so much of the film uses archival footage, but there is really nothing spectacular about watching a lot of very grainy footage.  While there are not many other options, when it comes to a high definition look at this type of footage, it is still pretty rough to try and do so here.  The animation sequences do look nice and crisp though, nicely utilizing the MPEG-4 AVC 1080i transfer.

Audio: 

Fortunately, the audio track is quite good.   This is important, as I do have to listen to Bill Hicks speak his mind throughout so much of this film, and hearing it nice in clear is a welcome part of the experience.  Even on the much older footage being shown, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track manages to do justice to the sound quality.  Of course, the new footage, such as interviews and added on music tracks sound nice as well.

Special Features: 

Now this is just a giant treasure trove of goodies.  Spread over two discs, once cannot deny that an extensive amount of care was put into delivering a ton of extra footage to best supplement this film and make good use of the space provided by a Blu-ray disc.

On Disc 1:

Extended Interviews pt. 1 – About an hour worth of interviews divided into topics

Q&A Panel at SxSW in Austin – A discussion with several of the interview subjects

Dominion Tour with Bill’s Family

On Disc 2:

Extended Interviews pt. 2 – Another 2 hours worth of extended conversations

Rare & Unseen Clips – While presented rather poorly in terms of audio/video quality, there is a lot of neat footage to view here

Deleted & Alternative scenes – More footage not presented in the film

Bill’s Audio Journals & rare radio interview – more interesting things to listen to

Audience Trailer

Featurettes:

– Bill’s family visit Abbey Road, Comedy School

– Festivals in the US and UK with the Hicks

– UK 15th anniversary Tribute, Dwight in London

– Kevin shoots his film in LA

– The ranch, Making of Arizona Bay

Final Thoughts: 

Now that I am about as familiar as I can be with Bill Hicks, I can easily say that he was an interesting man and this Blu-ray does a hell of a lot to show you plenty of information about him.  The documentary is straightforward, but provides a lot of good insight about the man and what he did with his comedic career.  The quality of the Blu-ray is decent enough in terms of its audio and visual presentation, but the fact that it is packed with extra material certainly does it a good amount of favor.  Anyone with some interest in Bill Hicks should certainly go and check out this disc and its supplements.

Order your copy of American: The Bill Hicks Story here:

 

 


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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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