I've never liked Ralph Bakshi's animation style. His films like Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, and Fritz the Cat never resonated with me. His stuff, while often controversial in content, always seemed visually shoddy. Part of that is due to his use of rotoscoping — animating over live action film — and mixed media. It doesn't help that his only real competition at the time he made and released the bulk of his work was Walt Disney, and even when they were in their late 1970s animation slump thanks, Bakshi's stuff always looked way more Fred and Barney than Tex Avery.
However, even in a canon so rife with niche films, it's possible to find a gem. For me, Bakshi's real gem, the film he should be remembered for, is American Pop, a sprawling five-generation epic tracing the male lineage of one family and the popular music soundtrack that punctuates their tragedies. Beginning in the Ukraine, we meet young Russian Jew, Zalmie, fleeing a horde of murderous Cossacks. His mother begs their father, the local rabbi, to flee with them but he refuses, and the Cossacks slaughter him as he prays. Zalmie and his mother emigrate to Hell's Kitchen. There, Zalmie falls in with local burlesque song peddler, Louis, and gets pulled into the world of baggy pants comedy and song-and dance. Later, during the prohibition years, Zalmie and Louis get tied to The Palumbo Crime Family. We'll follow Zalmie and his family through the next four generations and every era of popular American music, vaudeville, swing, jazz, rock and roll, punk, and inexplicably, Bob Seger (more on that later).
What the film lacks in subtlety (it has no subtlety) it makes up for in extremely good and punchy dialogue, believable characters, and a sweeping epic feel that both captures the music and mirrors the melancholy that tinges so much of it. From Zalmie, who loses his singing voice during WW1, to Bennie who loses his life in WW2, to Tony who loses everything to dope, and Little Petey who had nothing to start with but generations of musical talent stored up in his DNA (apparently) that led him to be Bob Seger (again, more on that later) and successful. Throughout these vignettes we'll watch Zalmie's extended family grow and be swept up a rapidly changing world. The musical choices for the film are, if not unexpected, excellent. From the strains of old burlesque craziness like Maple Leaf Rag all the way to Summertime by Big Brother and the Holding Company to Pretty Vacant by The Sex Pistols. Bakshi also uses mixed media to tell some of this story too, by cutting to occasional flashes of documentary film, or cuts of radio/television news and other familiar sounds.
Bakshi also tones down his use of psychedelic backgrounds and the usual moving palette of weirdness that accompanies his rotoscoped characters in other films. In this respect, American Pop is a much more conservative and conventional film than all of his others. The narrative is sometimes disjointed and ham-handed, like the scenes were Tony (Zalmie's grandson who he's never met), enamored with the Beat poets of New York, splits town and falls in with the Hippy movement in California. That said, the film is less about the "people" than about the soundtrack to the people's stories. It's very personal, and very, very good. Bakshi taps into the flaws of his characters; Zalmie who just wants to sing but can't; Bennie, who is forced into a political marriage so he runs off to war; Tony, who hates his step-father and runs away to become a hippy and junkie, and Little Pete, the byproduct of a one night stand in Kansas who blossoms into a new wave coke dealer in Tin Pan Alley.
The music choices by Lee Holdridge (and Bakshi) are mostly excellent, with some originals and some by sound alike artists. They even take pains to draw a distinction between songs that the film suggests are penned by rotoscoped characters and acknowledge the original writers and singers of those pieces.
With all of the buildup you expect a better payoff than Bakshi can deliver, and if you are thinking about renting or buying (or watching this on hulu.com) is that with all the dope dealing, homeless scraping, being fucked over by your long lost old man, and paralleling the life experience of your unknown great grandfather, and you finally get your shot, you write the song Night Moves. Then, when the song is apparently so good it gets you a gig playing stadiums, you play the musical antiques Blue Suede Shoes and Devil in a Blue Dress?
No you fucking don't.
If you turn off the film just as Tony finishes his last drug run, American Pop is one of the most satisfying animated features in film history. It's adult in that it deals with love and loss and death and drugs and rock and roll, but it's never gratuitous, and it's joyous in color and scope and sound. But the last ten minutes are fall down funny when Night Moves starts and it's such a fantastically sucky song that it eclipses much of the good that came before it. And to my mind it was never popular, other than on the crotchety old FM rock radio of today, or the occasional wedding reception. It's almost like the film ran out of steam when it got to the story of Little Pete, who only has about 11 minutes of story altogether anyway.
American Pop is also notable for its omissions, there's no British invasion (this is, after all, American Pop), no Beatles-sound-alikes like Dave Clark 5, no Motown sound, no crooners, country, or Les Paul, no heavy metal or disco or funk, etc… Bakshi does show how "black" music transitioned to the mainstream in the 1940s segment where two black teenagers dance to swing and morph into two white teenagers. But short of that the black experience in popular music doesn't get any screen time.
The voice talent on display is mostly studio character actors or commercial voice over people, but each does a brilliant job of creating a living person, especially the characters of Tony (Ron Thomson) and Frankie (Mews Small). Frankie, an amalgam of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin, is the very portrait of a messed up woman lost inside her fame. It would have been soooo easy to screw this character up with the voice, but Mews Small is just perfect. Ron Thompson handles Tony with maturity too inflecting a confidence and vulnerability that pops even better than the rotoscoping.
Seek out American Pop if you can, it's worth the two hour investment, and if you like Bob Seger then the film has a perfect ending. For the rest of us not deaf or in a mental institution, it's a great, sad, exhilarating ride, until the story of Little Pete, then it's Bob Seger and guffaws of laughter.
I've read that Bakshi wanted to end the film, originally, to Freebird, that pickup truck drivin' cuzzin humpin' anthem from heavier than air southern rock gods Lynyrd Skynyrd, so maybe Night Moves was a better choice. It was at least more logical than Freebird for a coke dealing kid raised on the streets of The Bowery by his itinerant smack-addict father.
Night Moves, uh huh, yeah yeah yeah…