It's a surprise it's taken until now, sixteen years after his death, to make a documentary on controversial comedian Bill Hicks. But Hicks, as his most ardent fans, who believe the man a prophet, will testify, the man is more relevant now than when he was alive. Just compare his idea for a Coca Cola ad with the new Hunky Dorys/Rugby campaign. Those ardent fans will relish the idea of this but will find nothing they don't already know.
Hurlock and Thomas take the viewer from Hicks' Texan upbringing in a strict Baptist house (his parents, siblings and close friends contribute to the interviews) through to his years on the underground circuit, his descent into alcohol and drug dependency and his eventual rise on this side of the Atlantic, where the British and Irish audiences welcomed him more than his own. The directors unearth old footage from Hicks' teenage stand-up, where his routine was of a more observational bent and directed at his parents; there is no sign of the angry political and social stance that was to come, courtesy of alcohol where "the bitterness came out." There's an old personal voice recording where he expresses his self doubt in his ability to do anything right. Always interesting but never surprising, American... Will appeal to passing fans than Hicks' hardcore fans.
Using The Kid Stays In The Picture, that 2002 documentary on Hollywood producer Robert Evans, as a template, directors Hurlock and Thomas dispense with the boring old 'talking heads' format synonymous with documentaries for something more stylish. Incorporating 'moving' photographs with pictures Hicks superimposed onto other pictures, music bubbling away underneath, a constant narration and enthusiastic contributors verbally acting out stories of Hicks' youth, American... Has a tidy momentum to it. Once more and more on-stage footage of Hicks becomes available, his stand-up routine takes the documentary over for the last half hour. This is where 'American....' might lose the fervent Hicks fan, who could probably quote his more famous pieces word for word.
Where 'American...' falls down is the lack of input from those outside his clique, as the furthest the directors cast their net are comedians that were knocking about during Hicks' time. While a poorly rendered trippy sequence, where Hicks tried magic mushrooms for the first time, is tacky to say the least. However, the most important faux pas is that the directors never get under the fingernails of the title: even though Hicks is famous for his anti-government rants, is he more American than most? Didn't Edward Abbey say that a patriot must always be ready to save his country from his government? Hurlock and Thomas never address it.
That said, once the documentary is over the viewer is never left in doubt why Hicks was so important and why he would warrant a documentary. Job done, then.