American: The Bill Hicks Story (BBC, 2011)

One of the sharpest, funniest comic voices of his generation, Bill Hicks never achieved the level of recognition he deserved during his too-brief lifetime, but in the years since his death, his work has acquired a cult following — and now, with this BBC-curated film, he joins the relatively short list of comedians who have earned the documentary treatment. Does the movie live up to its subject? Let’s take a look.

Synopsis: American: The Bill Hicks Story brings to life the amazing true story of one of modern culture’s most iconic figures.

Much more than just a comedian, Bill Hicks has become an inspiration to millions around the world. As a rebellious teenager, he discovered that comedy was a way to break all the rules, but then he found it could also open people’s minds. Bill’s comedy challenged the injustices of life head on, but his uncompromising approach met with conflict in America and it was instead on the international stage where he found fame.

In 1993, on the verge of wider success, Bill fell ill with terminal cancer, but his timeless material has lived on, revered by comedians and audiences alike as the man who changed comedy forever. Taking documentary to a new level, American uses interviews, archive footage including many unseen performances, and stunning animation to bring Bill’s inspiring story to life, told for the first time by those that knew him best.

Video: You aren’t necessarily looking for a pristine audiovisual experience with a feature like this, and American takes advantage of that leeway, serving up a 1080i transfer that’s perfectly acceptable — especially given the extreme limitations of some of the source material, including VHS tapes from early in Hicks’ career — but won’t win any awards.

Audio: As with the video, the DTS HD-MA 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly serviceable, but it’s there to serve a purpose, not impress you.

Special Features: Holy mackerel. You want special features? You’ve got ’em — roughly six hours’ worth, spread out over two discs. American was targeted by some critics for being a hagiography, and that’s a valid complaint, but if the movie itself functions as a somewhat uncritical introduction to Hicks’ work, the bonus material serves as a big wet kiss to hardcore fans.

You get half an hour of rare performance footage, three hours of extended interviews from the film, deleted and alternate scenes, trailers, footage from American‘s festival tour, roughly 90 minutes of featurettes, and more. Not all of it will interest everyone, but directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas (not to mention the BBC and Hicks’ estate) have really gone above and beyond with what’s on offer here.

Bottom Line: Hicks’ comedy could be challenging — it wasn’t for the Cosby crowd — but he had some really insightful things to say about life in America; in fact, some of the bits you’ll hear in this film still resonate today. But it’s more than just the comedy that makes American a worthwhile experience — Hicks serves as a sobering cautionary tale for anyone with a gift. You see him realize his potential as an artist, hone his craft, pursue his dream relentlessly, and then nearly piss it away with drugs and alcohol. He had to fight to reclaim his muse, only to discover he had pancreatic cancer.

It obviously isn’t a feelgood story, and anyone who knows the name Bill Hicks will know that much going in. But as sad as Hicks’ story can be, it’s also instructive; it shows just how far you can go if you believe in your talent, and it underscores the foolishness of squandering it. Like Hicks’ best routines, American gives you something to laugh at in the moment, and plenty to think about later.