An interview with Matt Harlock, co-producer of American: The Bill Hicks Story
The level of devotion that Bill Hicks still inspires is quite remarkable. There are regular appearances on The Greatest Stand-Ups Ever polls of course, and gushing celebrity fans, from Russell Brand to Bill Bailey, but tributes to Hick’s talent are unusually diverse, from the British MP who tabled a motion in the House of Commons entitled “Anniversary of the Death of Bill Hicks”, to the new generation of fans who speak of him with almost religious awe. American: The Bill Hicks Story is a documentary that attempts to explain this phenomenon, but also aims to bring something new to the table. A labour of love for British directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, American is composed of interviews with the ten people closest to Hicks in his life, constructing a portrait of Hicks as a man rather than an icon.
The film has its roots in the early 90s, when Hicks was becoming a cult hero in the UK, and Harlock was part of his significant student fan base. Hicks’ untimely death was a shock, and as the years passed, Harlock and his fellow fans were disheartened by a lack of coverage of the comic’s life. “I think that the feeling was really that this guy, who we really venerated and who we thought was really significant on the culturally timeline… hadn’t really been given his due. His life story hadn’t been told,” Harlock explains. Surprised by a lack of tribute nights on the tenth anniversary of Hick’s death, Harlock decided to put on his own. The interest was there, and several nights instantly sold out. “The process kind of started with me making a little documentary about these nights and sending it to Bill’s mother and Bill’s brother so they could know what was going on in the UK. So what it meant was that we had this dialogue with Bill’s family, where I was sending them stuff and letting them know that there was this sort of love and interest in their son. We were speaking to Bill’s family at the same time as we were speaking to broadcasters and distributers over here so that was where the sort of genesis of the idea came from, it was a combination of tribute nights and this dialogue that we had with the family, this realisation that Bill’s life story and his history had never really been told.”
This early dialogue with Hicks’ loved ones is apparent in the way American is structured. Instead of focusing on cultural commentators, the film is based exclusively around testimonies from those closest to Hicks when he was alive. The result is a film that feels deeply personal, an emotional tribute to Hicks as a son, brother and friend. “When we started interviewing family and friends it started to suggest a structure, and a level of intimacy to the film which introducing other people like famous comedians would have taken away from,” Harlock explains. “Originally we were planning to talk to people like Bill Bailey and Sean Hughes in the UK and people in the US too, but we ended up not doing that because of the personal nature of the interviews, not just how revealing they were but also the ways they suggested making the film. For example Bill’s friends all do impressions of Bill, and his mum and his dad. So when they’re having an argument on the stairs and Dwight’s doing all three of their voices that suggests a scene. That’s where the structure came from, and also that more intimate approach.” This personal angle has largely paid off, creating a distinctive and moving piece, but Harlock admits that the lack of famous faces has caused some problems. “We had some reviews in America, where they know a little bit less, where they said they really wanted to have a bunch of talking heads at the start of the film telling us why we should like this person. Potentially for some audiences that might have helped them…but it wasn’t a direction that we took.”
Another distinctive aspect of the film that emerged during this extensive interview process is the use of animation. American intersperses talking head interviews and archive material with dynamic animated sequences, which bring to life scenes from Bill’s life using photographs and video footage. The result is a sense of immediacy that might have been lacking in a straight biopic. Harlock describes how it was the discovery of an amazing cache of photographs in Bill’s family home that lead to this approach, “Bill was a bit of a hoarder. He was not only a diarist but he was also someone who kept fliers and negatives from photo shoots so it was sort of higgledy-piggledy. We sat with Bill’s mum around the kitchen table in Arkansas organising these photos.”
Inspired by other highly effective feature documentaries such as Man On Wire and Touching The Void, Harlock and Thomas realised that this vast archive, combined with the unusually dynamic interviews from Hicks’ family and friends could create a sense of immediacy. “When the interviewees were making scenes for us, they were actually creating narrative moments for us in the here and now. They weren’t just reminiscing about twenty or thirty years ago, they were actually putting you the viewer back into that moment…Rather than having people talking about the past you’re engaging them in the present. That sort of delivery, that moment, is what keeps viewers and audiences engaged. So we were trying to match that, having been given these amazing interviews, which were all in the present tense and then all this amazing archive material. And if you put them together, as we started doing, these scenes sort of start presenting themselves. And that’s kind of the place where the animated technique started.” The film was a shoestring affair, and they could only afford a professional animator for eight months of the three year process, but luckily both Harlock and Thomas were able to utilise their backgrounds in graphic design and architecture to piece the film together themselves, creating a documentary that feels unusually fresh, immediate and immersive.
Central to American is the sense that Hicks never got the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. Well documented is Hicks’ disappointment that while he was able to gain cult status in Britain he never managed to break America to the same extent. I ask Harlock why he thinks that was the case. “I think there’s a number of reasons. Obviously it’s easier to laugh at someone else’s country than it is to laugh at your own, and Bill was saying what he felt was wrong with America and so doing that over this side of the Atlantic is a lot easier for the audience to respond to.”
“At the same time there are other reasons. We’ve done a lot of Q and As with Bill’s brother Steve who would say to him ‘Why do you think it is? Is it that the Brits have got this ironic sense of humour or they’re more intelligent and you’re just on a different wavelength?’ And he would say he didn’t think it was that. He thought that over in the UK, when his Just For Laughs Montreal show was broadcast on Channel 4, a huge percentage of the audience got to see an hour and ten minutes of Bill on TV, unedited and uncensored. The American viewing public never really got that chance. Bill had HBO specials but HBO was not really the force that it is now. The fact that he was only able to do five minutes on Letterman, and that it had to be clean material, meant Bill never really got the chance to connect with an audience in the same way as he did over here.”
An untimely death is a tragedy of wasted potential, and Hicks is a classic case of a cult figure who wasn’t able to reach as far as he wanted to during his lifetime. It’s impossible to talk about Hicks without lapsing into speculation, and Harlock is rightly cautious when I ask if he thinks Hicks could have eventually infiltrated the American mainstream given a few more years. “It’s very difficult to say. The best correlations I would say that are now out there are people like Stephen Colbert and John Stewart who are basically proving that they can find audiences with hard hitting political material. The fact that they can do it proves there is an audience, an appetite there. Whether Bill would have been able to do it or not is really difficult to know…People would like to think that he might have done, that there was a space for him in the American cultural landscape.” Nonetheless, Harlock points out that the way in which stand-ups reach their audiences has changed dramatically over the years. Hicks died before the internet revolutionised mass consumption. The biggest barrier he faced was always the gatekeepers of American television, constantly censoring his material to appease advertisers. It’s impossible to imagine what Hicks would have made of YouTube. “He might have decided he wasn’t interested in trying to break America TV wise at all,” agrees Harlock. “He might have just become a mad prophet of the airwaves, doing his own thing and not worrying about what people were saying at all. All of these possibilities I think exist in the heads of people who knew Bill’s work.”
Another question American raises is how Hicks himself saw his work. At one stage a friend describes Hicks as “an activist”, but I wonder if he would really have approved of that label when he was alive. I ask Harlock if he thinks Hicks saw himself as more of an activist than a stand-up. “I think that he quite enjoyed the idea that you didn’t have to choose,” suggests Harlock. “When he was doing the Waco material, he used to wheel a TV on stage to play that footage to audiences that hadn’t seen it…but at the same time other friends of his said he would have hated the idea that he was being described as some kind of guru or commentator. He was a guy who liked to do jokes, who liked to get laughs from the audience. Opinion is divided.”
“Bill did political material but I still don’t think of Bill as a political comedian. Bill did drugs material, he did politics…but I think the fact that he then gets labelled as a philosopher or a prophet or a guru or a satirist suggests to me that he was stronger in his personality and in his beliefs…the specific type of material he did he tended to transcend. So you didn’t come away from it thinking ‘Oh, he’s a political comedian’ or ‘Oh, he’s a drugs comedian’, you come away from it thinking, ‘Fucking hell, the guy’s got a really big brain!’”
Many fans, myself included, would agree with Harlock’s conclusion that Hicks’ lasting power stems from this unique combination of intelligence, fire and honesty. “Something about his material has allowed and still allows audiences to connect with it in a very visceral and heartfelt way”, says Harlock. “The thing about the stand-up performer is that they are able to talk about anything. It’s just a bloke on a stage with a microphone. I think that the reason why Hicks still exists in the public imagination is because those people who not only want to and can but are able to speak freely about topics that matter to all of us, those people come along really, really rarely. And the reason why they come along so rarely is because the conditions that allow them to be that person are really, really specific. They have to have the voice and the intelligence and the insight to enable them to see what’s going on. They have to be outside of the mainstream enough so they aren’t told to stop and shut up, but they also have to be inside, or they have to be able to broadcast as much so that enough people are able to hear their voice. Bill was someone who occupied that really rare territory of speaking from the heart and being able to do so and being able to connect with people in a way that really only happens once in a generation.”
The problem with talking about an icon like Hicks is that the scope for speculation could drive you crazy. If Hicks was alive today it’s not hard to imagine that he would still hold an important place in the cultural landscape. After all, as Harlock points out, “the big political targets… are still exactly the same as they were twenty years ago.” Our daily lives are still dominated by advertising, by big corporations, by bailing out banks. We need truth tellers more than we ever have, and it is this desire for honesty that draws fans back to Hicks’ material again and again. American is an important film because it fleshes out the bones of Hicks iconoclastic public persona with the reality of the man; the loving son, the loyal friend. It should not be forgotten that the premature loss of Hicks was a human as well as a cultural blow. But, of course the material lives on, and it is important we don’t allow speculation to eclipse Hicks’ remarkable legacy. YouTube is strewn with clips of Hicks at his best, still being enjoyed and idolised by thousands today. The real tragedy would be to turn him into a martyr and consequently ignore the relevance his work still retains. It’s not hard to imagine that Hicks, the ultimate iconoclast, would be confused and perhaps a little disturbed by the icon he has become.
American: The Bill Hicks Story is shown on BBC4, Saturday 17th December, at 11pm to commemorate Hicks’ 50th birthday. There will also be a screening of the documentary at The Roxy Bar in London on the same night, with Bill’s brother Steve Hicks making an appearance. Tickets are priced at £5 and all money will go to the Bill Hicks Wildlife Foundation.