Thursday, June 2, 2011
In 1994 the savagely funny bundle of energy and awareness known as Bill Hicks left this mortal coil to rejoin the cosmos in the Arms of the One True God That Is Love and await the moment when All will again become One. I was going to open by stating the obvious - in this case, the fact that Bill Hicks was a truly gifted standup comic that died way before his time - but opted for something more or less in line with what Hicks himself might have penned for himself, had he been given the chance.
If you're like me, then you totally missed out on Hicks' all-too-brief rise and fall and continue to mine the depths of your skull trying to figure out what freaking planet you were on back then. I don't know about you, but for me, the window of time between the late '80's and early '90's was a bit of a fugue state, and many of the details of that era have mercifully been lost to the ravages of time and good, old-fashioned American hedonism. So on second thought, it's probably a good thing you're not like me, because I did a great many irretrievably stupid things back then, not the least of which was never getting into Bill Hicks when he was in his raging, stomping the mf'ing terra prime.
More than just a comic, Bill Hicks was arguably the sharpest satirist and social critic of his generation and a fiery intellectual who made gelatinous potted meat product out of many of America's most cherished sacred cows. As it turned out, I was first introduced to his ideas by way of the industrial/psychedelic art-metal band Tool, whose epic 1996 release "AEnima" was dedicated to the late comic genius. Those who'd like to know more about Hicks without braving Tool's darkly beautiful, brain-melting musical stylings would do well to check out American: The Bill Hicks Story, a solid new documentary from directors Matt Hartlock and Paul Thomas.
Inspired early on by the likes of Woody Allen and Richard Pryor, Hicks' dreams of comic stardom initially took root in Houston, where he quickly made his mark on the local comedy scene while still in high school. Drawing initially from his strict Southern Baptist upbringing, Hicks poked fun at his family life and the various absurdities he observed during his weekly comic adventures in the so-called adult world. His act soon became wildly popular, but Hicks, perhaps sensing on some level that he didn't have much time on this earth, set his sights much higher, and he soon left the stagnant confines of Houston for Los Angeles and the all-encompassing nexus for standup comedy in the known Universe - The Comedy Store.
It's always seemed to me that once comics establish their voice, their shtick, they tend to stick with it throughout their career and never change. That was never the case with Hicks, who always felt that he was destined to shake up the status quo and constantly pushed himself to break new ground. This is where Hicks' story takes a familiar turn. Feeling like he'd hit a mental wall, and with his competing dreams of rock versus comic stardom stalled on both fronts, Hicks began to experiment with alcohol and psychedelic mushrooms with mixed results that forever changed his outlook on Reality.
And as anyone who's spent a fair amount of time jabbing their Third Eye with a cattle prod will attest to, once you hop on the Magic Bus, your ideas start getting, shall we say, more and more out there. Predictably, Hicks' material started veering off the beaten path, and mutated from observations about his family, to commenting on America and the nature of Reality itself. Largely relying on a dynamic visual style that combines still and moving images, the film also brings Hicks' story to life via interview footage from friends and family and a lot of great standup footage from Hicks himself. Rather than a distraction, the animation really enhances the film, most vividly during the hallucinogenic sequences.
Bill Hicks broke a lot of boundaries in a painfully short period of time, and we're left to wonder about what he'd be like today had he not succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. The time since he's been gone has seen the birth of the Internet and Facebook, the Bush v. Gore debacle, and cultural excreta like Reality TV and Fox News. Every day seems to bring with it some new conspiracy theory or brain-jarringly weird belief. Politicians on both sides routinely embellish reality to suit their own ends. In the midst of endless war and economic stagnation, we appear to be at a crossroads and enmeshed in fierce debate over what kind of nation we want to be moving forward in a post-911/post-Osama world. While he'll live on through his recorded material and this lovingly crafted documentary, it's a damn shame Bill Hicks didn't live long enough to lend his voice to the chorus of those now challenging us to throw off our assumptions, truly think for ourselves, and find a better way to live on this earth.
Review by Dave Paiz, Loft Cinema Facilities Manager and host of "Bat Country Radio" Saturdays from 2-4 a.m. on 91.3 FM KXCI.
AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY starts Friday, June 3rd at The Loft Cinema. ONE WEEK ONLY!