Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American: The Bill Hicks Story @ The Friars Club Film Festival 9.26.10

I first encountered Bill Hicks via a doc called Just A Ride that I'm pretty sure I saw on Comedy Central. Coming straight out of Austin, his iconoclastic pro-drug, anti-establishment ranting resonated with me in a way that few comedians had previously. Given the role the Letterman show played in his ascension to infamy, it confounds me that I could have missed all of his performances on Late Night, but either way, post-Ride I made short work of making up for that lost time. In the time-tested JS-NYC adherence to obsessive compulsion, I ended getting all the Hicks material in short order. In delving into his history, it was both intriguing and disappointing to find how much of his act has been stolen outright by comedians like Dennis Leary and how much of a loose cannon he was perceived to be by NBC, to the point where his last performance was actually cut from broadcast after network censors deemed it too inflammatory. Cap the whole thing with his death at 32 from cancer, and you have a tragic story that is impossible to ignore.

The Hicks family have done much to keep Bill's name out there since his passing in 1994. The Bill Hicks Live DVD that dropped a couple years ago packaged live material with the Just A Ride doc and sold real well. Rykodisc has re-released all his comedy albums and DVDs in recent years, including the CD/DVD box set of heretofore unseen, and for the most part unreleased, material called The Essential Collection that dropped a couple weeks ago . Look for a JS-NYC review soon.

Recently, my boy Eric and the good folk of the Second Annual Friar's Club Comedy Film Festival added American: The Bill Hicks Story as a spotlight documentary. As pleased as I was to find that the Hicks name was still on the lips of the populace at large, I had to wonder what new insights the doc's makers would bring to the table. What bade well was that directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas were (and are) Brits. While Hicks had a decent Stateside following in his day, his overseas presence was much stronger, especially in the UK. Family and childhood friends are the primary storytellers, offering warmly personal insight into both the man and the myth. The chrononology is punctuated by animation that fills in the gaps where pertinent footage doesn't exist. Now, if I had read that animation would be present previous to attending this performance, I would have chugged a healthy amount of hater-ade. As I rolled in ignorant of the fact (and in a slightly enhanced state of consciousness) the unexpected animation proved both a surprising and strangely compelling addition to the doc. Little burnishments like these added to the recollections from his mother, brother and best friends establishes American: The Bill Hicks Story as the pre-eminent encapsulation of Hicks' life. Personally I would have liked to have seen some Letterman insights, as well as more exploration of the parallel orbits that he and Sam Kinison inhabitated. To that end, no doc to date has really addressed the Leary plagarism or talked to any of his female companions, but even without such matter being addressed, American: The Bill Hicks Story is still a fine piece of work.

The doc was received ecstatically to a full room at The Paley Center, but like many independent documentary releases, the BBC-funded American: The Bill Hicks Story is looking for stateside distribution. Harlock and Thomas were in town to drum up support for the project, introducing the film and participating in a post-showing Q&A. For the concerned, the Hicks family is in full support of the project, attending the Friar's Club screening and participating in the Q&A and domestic promotion for American. Go the the official web presence here and see how you can help. The night was a huge success, and major props are due to The Friar's Club Comedy Festival for putting together an unprecedentedly great nine days of the best in independent comedy film. The second year of the Fest was a huge success, and hopes are high for an even more auspicious third year. Go to the Friar's Club Comedy Film Festival web presence here to see what you missed and how to be a part of it next year.


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