home Arts & Literature, Humor, Movies What really matters about “American: The Bill Hicks Story”

What really matters about “American: The Bill Hicks Story”

I’m going to break my golden rule and write this in first person. I figured I owe Bill Hicks this much.  I’d been a massive fan since I saw him on Channel 4 years ago. I loved him the same way I loved old school electro and “The Empire Strikes Back.” He was the don, he didn’t give a f*ck and he spoke the truth. Chuck D said that rap music was the “Black CNN,” and in the same vein, Hicks’ wicked satire was the internet of his day.

After his untimely death in 1994, I gave Bill a well-deserved rest. I caught the odd re-run or magazine article but it went pretty quiet on the Goatboy front. A couple of years ago, I felt it was time to revisit the man who described himself as “Chomsky with dick jokes.” I raided my brothers DVDs and old videos and strapped myself in to laugh at the world anew. Back in the day, being with Bill was special: you got something that everyone else was missing. This may have been smart-arsed and pretentious, maybe, but the joke was on the schmucks who didn’t get it.

And yet, it just wasn’t the same.

Sure, I appreciated his imperious delivery; the way he spread the shadow of his hand over the audience and made them bend to his every whim. I admired the routines that still carried enough lead to machine gun the world and I smiled, nodded approvingly, chuckled knowingly, but I didn’t piss myself laughing. What was wrong with me? Had I finally conformed, like those arseholes in University who thought it was rebellious to become soap dodgers and stink for three years before cutting their hair and working in a merchant bank?

The sad fact was that when I switched William Melvin Hicks off for what I thought maybe the last time, I was totally underwhelmed.

Fast forward two years later and to the London Film Festival. I feel like Odysseus stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. Do I watch “Precious” and see what all the fuss is about, or catch the new British documentary about Bill? I felt mad at myself for how I left it with him before. Would this be my last opportunity to square things with him or, God forbid, prove myself right once and for all? I hovered by Leicester Square tube chewing it around in my head, glanced at the “Precious” poster and f*cked off to see Bill.

The NFT was crammed with Bill’s disciples. I bedded down in my seat and wondered what he would have made of the cult that still flourished all those years after his death. I replayed his JFK sniper pendant skit and peered closely to see if anyone wore a tiny silver cigarette around their neck. Checking my blue school exercise book, I wrote: “Will you laugh?” I was almost daring myself not to.

To add more gravity to the occasion, Bill’s mum, brother and best friend were there with the directors. And then reality hit home. This legend, this guy, was also someone’s son, brother and best friend, and they were going to have him back for two hours. The rare footage of his early gigs, the animated photos of childhood, that voice – it would all reincarnate him in celluloid for the briefest of moments.

It reminded me of a lesson I recently had with one of my film groups, watching “North By Northwest.” None of the students had ever seen it but there they sat, enthralled by Cary Grant and James Mason in that divine Technicolor, the actors flawless in their delivery, just as they will remain forever. So enraptured were they that when it ended, I pointed out they’d just seen a film where the two stars and the director were all dead. So alive was Hitchcock’s movie that even though they knew they were no longer with us, it never once crossed their minds. If cinema could have this effect on my students, what could it do for Bill’s family and friends?

Did I like the movie? Let’s just say I got one of my heroes back. That doesn’t happen everyday.


Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.

6 thoughts on “What really matters about “American: The Bill Hicks Story”

  1. “Well…Looks like we got ourselves a reada.”

    During his last days, Bill stayed at his parents house, and at some point tried to get them to trip shrooms with him. What a wild one.

    “Last night some hooligans knocked over a dust bin in Shaftsbury.”

    Your point about his family getting him back for two hours reminds me of Tito Jackson’s choice to stay outside during the premier of “This Is It” because it was too soon for him. I wonder if his family would have been able to watch the film had it been made and released five months after his death.

    “It’s just a ride.”

  2. During the Q&A Sim they said they felt the time was right to tell Bill’s story. I agree they wouldn’t have done so if it had been so soon. They trusted the directors and I think the length of the filmmaking process tells a lot in itself-6 months turned into 3 years.

    The family gave everyone a memorial card for him at the end. I think you’ll find the film a fitting tribute.

    Thanks Mark

  3. Bill fell out of favour with me too Mark. I’ve realised that it wasn’t Bill’s fault, as pretencious as it sounds, I blame the late comers. Have you ever sat in a room full of Advertising execs and had to listen to them laugh and recite the ‘Kill yourself’ routine? It’s hideous, and destroys your soul, just like the Star Wars pre-quels destroyed fond childhood memories.

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