American The Bill Hicks Story

Looks like we got ourselves a documentary

For a city of just over a quarter of a million people, Belfast has made a tremendous impact around the world. Did Bill Clinton visit Hull? Did Simple Minds write a song called ‘Leicester Child’? Did the late US comedy legend Bill Hicks include gags about Plymouth or Coventry in his show?

‘Played Belfast, Ireland, last week,’ said Georgia-born Hicks in one of his most famous routines. ‘Never been to Belfast, Ireland. Played to 900 screaming and adoring fans in a turn-of-the-century theatre that Oscar Wilde performed in. Only to come back to America, the country I have toured ceaselessly for 15 years, to play Adolf’s Comedy Bunker in Idaho to 25 apathetic people – strangers one and all – who stared at me like a dog that had just been shown a card trick.’

Tonight, Bill is back in Belfast. The Irish premiere of American: The Bill Hicks Story – showing at Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the 10th Belfast Film Festival – is sold out. This long-overdue documentary about Hicks’ life tells the tale of a tragic genius: a stand-up by 16, a regular on Letterman by 21 and dead from cancer by 32.

Hicks went from being a precocious Southern Baptist rich kid to a hopeless, screaming drink-and-drug addict and – almost, sort of – back again. The scenes of Hicks reconnecting with his family in the days before his death from cancer are heartbreaking.

British directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas craft a powerful movie. They don’t have a lot to work with – Hicks family photographs, some grainy home videos and concert tapes that fans will have seen many times already – but they use their imaginations.

The filmmakers animate photos against live-action backgrounds. The soundtrack is mostly music by Hicks’ band, Marble Head Johnson. The only people interviewed are Hicks’ family and friends, no celebrities. This original approach creates a unique mood, perfectly capturing the essence of Hicks. He was an original, a one-off, and American: The Bill Hicks Story is a work of art.

In his prime, Hicks was a raging anarchist with a heart of gold. He would rant about religion, politics and consumerism (‘If anyone here is in advertising or marketing… kill yourself’), but – unlike, say, George Carlin – he actually seemed to care about the human race.

‘Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride,’ he said in 1993. ‘Take all that money we spend on weapons and defences each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.’

If he had lived, Hicks would surely have continued to hone his act, and would now be one of the most popular comedians on the planet. As it is, he remains a cult figure – albeit one that can still fill a theatre in Belfast.