Bill Hicks: Much more than just another anarchic comedian

IT'S 16 years since cult comedian Bill Hicks died of cancer, aged just 32.

In the period since then, his reputation as the fearless "angry young man" of stand-up comedy has steadily grown. In fact, Hicks is bigger now than he ever was during his lifetime. His CDs are bestsellers, there are websites devoted to his life and work and now a new documentary brings the tale of one of pop culture's most revered icons to the big screen.

American: The Bill Hicks Story (15) charts the rise of the American comedian through unprecedented access to Hicks's collection of videos and photographs, as well as insightful interviews with those who knew him best. The film also uses animation techniques to reconstruct unseen elements of Hicks's life along with footage of him performing on stage.

Directors Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas are appearing at a Doc/Fest Q&A tomorrow at Sheffield's Showroom Cinema to talk about their film and discuss Hicks's enduring legacy. Harlock admits it was something of a labour of love. "Getting everyone on board took a couple of years. His family had been approached by a lot of people in the past who were less than subtle and they were understandably cautious."

The result is an intriguing and sympathetic portrait of arguably the most revered comedian of his generation.

"There was a recent TV programme on the top 100 comedians and Bill came fourth, which is remarkable when you consider he hasn't produced any new material in the last 15 years."

Hicks tackled such disparate topics as sex, war and organised religion, confronting what he saw as the hypocrisy and lies fed to people on a daily basis.

"He could be profound and profane. Most comedians are one or the other, but he was like 'the perfect storm' as one friend described him. I can't think of another comic who has the same passion. He wasn't just there counting the money, he was trying to challenge people's attitudes."

His fearless style has been praised by everyone from John Cleese to Russell Brand. But Harlock says he was more than just an iconoclast.

"He has this uncompromising, chain-smoking image, but what's interesting is the tape recording he made when he was 18 where he questions whether he's good enough to make it; you suddenly realise that he had the same doubts and dreams as the rest of us."

So what is Hicks's enduring appeal? For many people he remains an antidote to the facile world of reality TV and celebrity culture. He embodied and articulated the rage that many of us feel towards the world at times.

However, there are those who argue that he was no better than other talented comedians of his generation and that his cult status is due to his early, albeit tragic, demise. Not surprisingly Harlock disagrees. "A lot of people die young but they aren't remembered and the reason he has stayed in the public's consciousness is because of the exceptional body of work he left behind.

"He was more than just another anarchic comic, he had a unique vision and he wanted to show people there was a different way of looking at the world."