American Pop is a bit of an odd duck. A film by noted animator Ralph Bakshi, it was hammered out while Bakshi was recovering from the (much deserved) ass whipping his awful Lord of the Rings adaption received. The film was rotoscoped, meaning animation was traced over footage that was shot in live action, giving a jarring and distinctive feel to the film, although it is not without its drawbacks.
This film’s tone is downright Eisnerian; the plot of successive generations of a Russian Jewish family and how they interacted with the zeitgeist of their era could have been plucked right out of A Contract With God. We are given a line of male protagonists who all must grapple with a societal wall between them and their passion. In the beginning, we have a rabbi cut down by a Cossack pogrom because he refused to interrupt his prayer to flee. After this, each generation is represented by a young man who attempts to realize his dreams as a musical performer or singer. The world is not kind to these men, however. The rabbi’s son, Zalmie Belinsky, is orphaned when his mother dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and a stray bullet during the Great War ruins his singing voice, derailing his livelihood. He attempts to navigate and manage a singing career for the woman he loves, but he ends up having more in common with Meyer Lansky than Irving Berlin. His son, Benny, is a musical prodigy. Despite his immense talent, depression and apathy swallowed him up as a child after a mob hit on his father ends up causing his mother’s death instead. He is struck down by a German soldier during the second World War. Benny’s orphan, Tony, is a ferociously independent young man who cut his teeth on the Beat scene, but his westward quest for authenticity and acceptance is ground into nothing by heroin. Finally, Tony’s bastard Pete takes the reigns of the narrative. Unlike his predecessors, Pete is too sharp, mean, and dedicated to be waylaid by violence, addiction, or the hegemonic wishes of others. Through Pete, the entire line of Belinsky men are redeemed and brought to triumph as the final protagonist basks in the glory of pop music arête.
While the Belinsky journey is a rewarding story, the film is not without its problems. The opening credits sequence is belabored, attempting a Leone/Coppola feel, but coming off more like Don Bluth’s take on the introduction sequence to Cheers. The rotoscoping is problematic too. I don’t want to get into a debate over how “authentic” it is or isn’t to trace animation over something that’s already been shot with live actors, but it robs animation of the emotional intimacy and nuance that drawings are turned to for in the first place. There’s nothing particularly subtle about the technique, which causes Bakshi to introduce long, pregnant pauses to help slow the narrative and let the impact of a scene sink in. It works to great effect at first, but he keeps reaching back for the same trick ad nauseam, diminishing the impact. The worst moment of the film is, unfortunately, what should have been the best: When Pete is finally given the opportunity to unleash the music that’s been brewing inside him, the track selection Bakshi chooses is…’Night Moves’ by Bob Seger. I understand Seger’s star burned a bit brighter in 1981. I didn’t expect Pete to start cranking out ‘Shoot Out The Lights’ by Diamond Head (Which would have been awesome, by the way). But…really?
Distracting animation techniques aside, there is a lot of heart to this film. The dialogue and its delivery is stellar, owing a lot to the fact that actors played out their scenes live as opposed to speaking their parts into a can; Americans as a whole aren’t particularly good at dramatic voice acting, and the idea that animation is a children-only affair keeps the more nuanced performances at bay. One aspect of the film I absolutely loved was Bakshi’s refusal to sugar coat the Long 60s that Tony endures. The devil-may-care, free love ethos espoused by nearly everyone isn’t critiqued directly, but is given just enough rope to hang itself, as the warm colors and mildly pleasant folk music descend into harsher sounds and palettes as the main protagonists start to succumb to their junk habits. After each character passes the baton off to the next Belinsky, there are well done musical montages that give the viewer a crash course in what cultural currency the next lead is dealing with, and aside from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar playing animation, they all more or less nail the flavor they are attempting to capture. All in all, I’d say this was a damn good film, and one I will happily return to again. B+
Zalmie traded crooning for whiskey bootlegging and murder
My favorite moment in American Pop comes when a drug-addicted protagonist reunites with his old hippie band and their desperate trainwreck of a lead singer. “I’m nothing without you!” the drunken Frankie shrieks as she melts into our guy Tony’s arms. As she does this, an unforgettable Grinch-like smile spreads across Tony’s rotoscoped face while the opening notes of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” begin to play. We’re then treated to a good minute of an animated Hendrix tromping around onstage while he strums on his guitar. I forget what happens next but I’m sure it involves some kind of weird visual collage of stock footage and funky animated dancers.
There’s something infectious about the way this film packs so much expression into moments like these. In doing so, American Pop successfully rebrands several classic pop songs, ranging from Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” to Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” (a song I know I’m supposed to hate but don’t, so leave me alone music snobs—and that includes you, director Ralph Bakshi).
The excellent voice acting lends additional nuance to the characters—the one exception being Ron Thompson. Thompson voices two of the film’s four patrilineally related protagonists, and although he does a great job with the voice of the festering addict Tony, he chokes when it comes to Pete, the badass, jive-talkin’ coke dealer who, incidentally, sounds nothing like the aforementioned Seger. This might be less his fault and more the fault of the script and/or director, but regardless, it’s the one vocal performance in this otherwise strangely earnest film that doesn’t strike me as genuine.
American Pop is a complicated piece of animation that has me torn, stuck between two opposing thoughts fighting it out in a no-holds-barred rotoscoped high school Battle of the Bands in the back of my mind. On the one hand, the subtext and idea behind the film is notable. What Ralph Bakshi birthed to the world is a 96-minute music video that tries to layer meaning and background to the ever-changing face of American pop music. In chronicling several generations of a family, beginning with the flight of Russian Jews from the Czar and ending with the dawn of the 80’s, Bakshi uses the experiences of each generation in an attempt to catalogue what is going on in each era’s music. The effort should be applauded, as the concept and the way the music clashes with the violent history each generation of this family, whether it’s one of the two World Wars, prohibition era gangster activity, or so forth, endures builds an interesting implication as to why the popular music of each era took the form it did. Of course, there’s no clear interpretation, so what one infers another could strongly argue against.
On the other hand, with each step forward the earlier parts of American Pop advances in chronicling and boiling down this history, the latter half of the film unravels. History slows down as we reach the 60’s and 70’s. The delinquent lineage of this film is given much more screen time, specifically with the character of Tony, as he travels any way he can out West to submerge himself in dreary, acid-fueled songs and a relationship that ultimately ends in the fatal overdose of a lover. It’s in this sequence my teeth clenched. What began as an interesting way to construct a history book morphed into the hollow shell of an old Ralph Bakshi cult classic – Fritz the Cat – without the drug-addled cartoon animal present. That said, once Tony bows himself out from the screen, the film picks up for its rock-serenading finale.
All in all, American Pop is one of those films that should be watched at least once, at least to give credit where it’s deserved. This film is an experiment, and it’s a one-of-a-kind experience at that. Ralph Bakshi deserves a firm handshake and nods of appreciation for the attempt, even if, some of us, would argue that this experiment churned out an abomination. If you’re just coming for the music though, there’s plenty of good tunes to be had. My personal favorite incorporation was Sam Cooke. Bakshi fans will also note that his unique animation style is chugging along at full power.
Hell is for children