Even Bill Hicks' adoring mother wasn't sure what to make of him. "Bill was -- I don't know -- he was interesting," she says in American: The Bill Hicks Story, the documentary about her comedian son, who died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 33. This inability to put a label on Hicks, which came in part because his style changed so much over the course of his career, might have been what kept him from achieving the superstardom that his admirers always felt he deserved. American, a lively and polished effort by British filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, seeks to show the world what made Hicks so special.

This may be the most thorough analysis Hicks will ever get. Made with full cooperation from his mother and siblings and many of his closest friends, the film boasts ample new interviews, clips of Hicks' performances, and a ton of family photos and home movies. (The photos have been semi-animated, to give them depth and movement -- unnecessary, maybe, but it keeps the film's visual side from getting too static.) We get about as clear a picture of Hicks' personality as anyone who knew him ever got, and a taste of what his fans saw in him as a performer. His tragic, too-soon death -- which came after he stopped drinking and doing drugs (a dark irony he would have appreciated) -- probably enhanced his legacy, but it's apparent he'd have been beloved even if he'd lived.