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Anyone's who's into outsider comedy would have heard of Bill Hicks. Mostly putting out stuff in the late 80s and early 90s, Hicks was a brilliant stand-up who attacked life's stupidities. The Bush government, the anti-drug bias in the media, the piety of non-smokers.

AMERICAN tells Hicks' life story, one ended way-too-quickly by pancreatic cancer. Yet there's something about the film that irritates. It's great to get the word about Bill Hicks out there, but this film isn't the best way to do it.

The main irritant is the almost constant use of "innovative" animation... which looks more like low-level Flash stuff to me. They use photos of Hicks and his buddies to illustrate the narration, and it's often very patronising. It assumes the audience can't imagine Hicks travelling in a car, working out his comedy, or climbing out of his window to make it to a comedy club that his parents disapprove of.

The animation may have worked better if it had been drawn, but the use of photos leads to some unnecessarily jokey images. Hicks' expressionless photo tootling along in a van, or looking at his young comedy partner, or even peering over the roof of his house. The stony or goofy faces of the photographs are much too limited. At times, the same image is used to illustrate wildly differing emotions... happiness, confusion, fear. If they were going down the animation route, they would have better off just drawing the damn thing.

It says something that the best parts of AMERICAN are the direct footage of Hicks' gigs. And almost all of this is easily available elsewhere. The only eye-opening bit is seeing a fresh-freshed Hicks coming out with great jokes in his mid-teens. This guy had a once-in-a-generation natural talent.

It is pleasing that AMERICAN is so positive in tone. It's a celebration. But that isn't the problem. We need to be aware AMERICAN isn't fully Hicks' story. It's his life mediated through the people around him. It's as much about Kevin Booth and Dwight Slade as it is about him.

Perhaps this is just because I'm uncomfortable with biographies in general. People saying how other people felt. And it's especially uncomfortable when Hicks has left a superb legacy of videos, CDs and writing. AMERICAN doesn't tell us anything we can't get from his shows. Hicks never hid the truth. Even harsher stuff like his alcohol addiction. So why do we need to hear about it from other people?

I don't know if Hicks' fans are the main target audience of AMERICAN. And maybe that's why it doesn't work for devotees. It just doesn't tell us anything new. It certainly isn't a patch on the Hunter S. Thompson documentary GONZO, which uses a lot more stuff directly from its subject whilst still confronting issues that Thompson hid under his macho veneer.

AMERICAN could work as a great introduction to Bill Hicks. And any way the word of Hicks is positively spread should be lauded. But, for me, JUST A RIDE did a better job in a third of the time. And, ultimately - fan or not - SANE MAN should be your first port of call if you want to learn about Hicks' personality and his comedy. It's unfiltered, uncensored... and it's brilliant.

Review by Steve Hussy