Movie review: 'American: The Bill Hicks Story'

It is a testament to the talent of the late stand-up comic Bill Hicks, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 in 1994, that documentarians Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas have taken such pains to evoke the arc and impact of Hicks' all-too-brief life and career in "American: The Bill Hicks Story" with such depth, breadth and originality. Their use of deftly animated photo-based collages is so inspired that it lends an aura of giving a third dimension to their tightly integrated interviews and archival materials.

Hicks spent most of his formative years in an upscale Houston neighborhood with his loving Southern Baptist family, who, more than he realized at the time, were in awe of his no-holds-barred, truth-telling humor rather than scandalized by it. Inspired by late-night show comics, Hicks and his best friend from eighth grade, Dwight Slade, were performing at 14, their material drawn from family experiences. While still in their teens, they headed for Los Angeles — and the Comedy Store.

As a single, Hicks, whose average-guy physical appearance proved to be highly deceptive, seemed to have a natural gift at getting laughs. Fueled for a while by psychedelic mushrooms, alcohol and cocaine, he sobered up to attain a fresh maturity and to become an increasingly astute social and political satirist. Yet for all his acclaim, Hicks' life was spent mainly on the road playing small clubs, with a few good shots on TV. In going to the U.K. he discovered he could attract larger audiences and returned home confident that he would be able to break through at last — and then was felled by cancer. Posthumous albums and now this film are securing his legacy and enduring influence.

"American: The Bill Hicks Story." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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