Friday 24 September 2010

On DVD: "American: The Bill Hicks Story"

American: The Bill Hicks Story, an agreeably straight-ahead account of the iconic stand-up/libertarian gunslinger/sometime Goatboy, employs a somewhat dated photo-animation technique (think 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture) and the words of Hicks family and friends to describe a trajectory that begins in Texas and ends up somewhere beyond the stars. Archive footage of a baby-faced Hicks in his element on stage in his hometown reveals just how much of the act was in place from an early age: the anti-authoritarian attitudes (first targets included teachers and his ever-resilient parents), the supreme belief in the power of his own words, the sporadic reach for character and physical comedy.

In comedy as in life, Hicks came to overturn all the conventional wisdoms. Only when he took up smoking, drinking and hallucinogens could he let it all pour out: the savagely funny material, as well as the bitterness and disillusionment that was never far from the surface, a by-product of the lonely life on the road that remains jolting, and ensured this performer would continue to alienate as many as he enthralled. The chronological approach points up a progression (or an evolution, as Hicks himself would doubtless have phrased it) in the stagecraft. The harder Hicks drank, the more ferocious (and thus compelling) he became - but when he sobered up, and had to reconstruct both himself and his worldview, the act achieved a greater clarity, one able to distil all that rage into something constructive and edifying, and find the message and the rhythms that have since entered into lore.

There's a sense that the story counts for less than the routines, that the biographical element serves as filler between each provocative snatch of performance; here was a man who (in all senses) found himself, and continued to find himself, on stage, even as pancreatic cancer laid ravage to his earthly form. (And talk about clarity amid chaos: these early 1990s routines - sets that managed the rare combo of angry and funny, which managed to pin down exactly the image or turn of phrase required - suggest there were few sharper critics of American foreign policy or, on the domestic front, its crasser commercial instincts.) As a primer for the unenlightened, or as an illustrated companion to John Lahr's Hicks anthology Love All the People, it'll do just fine.

American: The Bill Hicks Story is available on DVD from Monday.

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