Screenplay : Ronnie Kern
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1981
"American Pop," Ralph Bakshi's animated generational history of twentieth century American music, is an epic without scope. In just over an hour and a half, it follows the paths of four generations of fathers and sons, starting with their immigration from czarist Russia, and taking them through the speakeasies of Prohibition, the beatnik rhythms of the fifties, the drug-addled sixties, and right into the New Wave era of the early eighties.
Any one of these segments, properly and thoroughly explored, might have made an interesting film. Unfortunately, the way screenwriter Ronnie Kern has it set up, "American Pop" is like a tease -- every time it starts engaging the viewer, it quickly shifts gears and heads into a new decade, leaving the previous developments all but forgotten.
The movie opens in Russia in 1907, when the family leaves the violence of that country for the hope of America, symbolized by Ellis Island. The first generation father starts out working in vaudeville; but eventually he gets caught up in the Mafia's dealings during Prohibition, and winds up in jail. The second father is a quiet, masterful piano player who goes to World War II and is killed by the Nazis while sitting at a piano.
The third father, Tony (voiced by Ron Thompson), is given the deepest treatment. He is a rebellious young man who is awestruck when he hears a beatnik reading from Allen Ginsberg's infamous poem, "Howl." He travels across the U.S. -- stopping long enough in Kansas to father an illegitimate child via a one-night stand with a waitress in a cornfield -- before delving headfirst into the rampantly hedonistic music scene of San Francisco in the mid-sixties. There, he hooks up with a band obviously patterned after Jefferson Airplane, where he writes songs and does a lot of drugs.
But soon enough, the drug culture that spawned his success chews Tony up and spits him out, leaving him alone with his son, Little Pete (voiced by Eric Taslitz), who has managed to find him in California. After the film's most effective dramatic scene between a father and a son, Tony ends up deserting Little Pete. Pete then grows up to be a cocaine dealer in the late seventies, and eventually makes his way to stadium-filling stardom as a full-fledged rock star, after wowing some of his drug clients by pounding out Bob Seger's "Night Moves" on the piano (it's one of several instances where the film has fictional characters writing and performing actual songs as if they were their own).
If a single theme emerges from "American Pop," it's a lack of paternal guidance resulting in profound unhappiness and loss of identity. All four generations of fathers and sons have conflicts in their relationships, and none of their lives end on an upbeat note. One lands in jail; one dies violently in war; one is never seen again after deserting his son; and although that final son is last seen standing triumphantly on stage, it's not hard to surmise that the drugs and fame will soon take their toll on him as well.
This was surely Bakshi's intention, considering how essentially downbeat and provoking most of his films have been. Bakshi emerged in the early seventies as a kind of anti-Walt Disney by introducing pimps and hookers and drug pushers into a mainstream animated landscape that had previously been home only to the likes Bambi and Snow White. One of Bakshi's earlier films, the racially-charged "Coonskin" (1975)-- which was later re-titled "Streetfight" to avoid racist accusations -- was a deliberate and hilarious parody of Disney's "Song of the South."
Unlike that film, "American Pop" just isn't acerbic enough. The tone is ultimately depressing, but Bakshi wraps it up in bright colors and a pounding soundtrack of rock classics from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Bob Seger (in fact, it was the battle over the ancillary video rights to use this music that kept the film off video shelves for so long). The movie is a downer that doesn't have the sense to at least be thought-provoking or shocking; it's just too plain for its own good.
Maybe it's because "American Pop" is so steadfastly serious and determined to rush through its eighty years of music-laden history, that there's never a chance to crack a smile, either on-screen or off. Bakshi's earlier animated films, including "Coonskin" and his autobiographical "Heavy Traffic" (1973), dealt with harsh social reality, but they were loaded with shocks, jolts, and plenty of raw-edged humor. It gave those films life and vitality, and "American Pop" displays none of that.
Technically, "American Pop" is one of Bakshi's more even-handed efforts. His tendency is to mix too many styles and palettes, including live action, animation, and still drawings, which caused such ugly messes as "Wizards" (1977) and the awful ending of "Lord of the Rings" (1978). "American Pop" maintains a consistent visual style, but animation purists will be horrified at the obvious rotoscoping throughout the film (For those who don't know, rotoscoping is the practice of filming the movie live-action, and then tracing the action into animation.)
Depending on one's point-of-view, rotoscoping is either a method of achieving additional realism with ink and paper, or it is an unforgivable bastardization of the animation process. I tend to lean more toward the latter, because it seems pointless and inartistic to deny the animators so much creativity. With the action already on celluloid, all they do is trace the characters and put them against expansive backdrops that would have cost much more to film live. Much of it is probably due to money, since Bakshi obviously didn't have the budget afforded a typical Disney film. This is most obvious in large scenes filled with many people -- instead of having layers of animated people moving about and creating a sense of motion and life, he simply pans across a single, static drawing to establish the location. It gets the job done, but it's a shortcut nonetheless.
However, "American Pop's" fundamental flaw is more basic than technical merits or dramatic structure: simply put, there is nothing about either the subject matter or its cinematic treatment that in any way suggests it is best served through animation. Nothing about the film couldn't have been done better with live actors. For almost two decades, Bakshi waged a virtual one-man fight to prove that animation was just as viable a medium for telling mature, adult stories as live-action. If "American Pop" proves anything, it's that some subjects are best left to flesh and blood.
©1998 James Kendrick