Ralph Bakshi is an artist who I have grown to adore and respect when it comes to the medium of animation. His blend of stylish character designs, inventive use of both painted and live-action backgrounds, and a wicked sense of humor has made his films both definers of eras in which they are made and simultaneously timeless. Of all the films he has made, the one picture that sticks out in my mind the most has to be his 1981 effort, American Pop.
Okay then, where to begin with a piece like this? How about something along the lines of, “My God was that fucking amazing!” Those words were the first out of my mouth after having watched it for the first time a few years ago, and those are words I stand by to this day. I was blown away by this piece for how unashamedly ambitious it was. Conceptually, Ronni Kern’s screenplay is an ingenious one, telling the tale of four men whose lives are intertwined with that of the music of their time, showing how sometimes honest-to-God hard work can all be for not, and success can come from what could be viewed as an “undignified” gateway. The stories are all reasonably developed, at least to the point of serviceability, and are acted so damn convincingly. Jeffrey Lippa, Richard Singer, and Ron Thompson as the four men (with Thompson doubling up on the latter two characters of Tony and Pete) are all fantastic, really making you feel for the characters by providing some rather pure deliveries. It’s the authenticity of their work that I find makes the film work. And going back to Kern’s script, there is some spectacular dialogue to be had, with a character like Russian immigrant Zalmie, played by Lippa, throwing out lines like, “I sent my voice to the laundry and it shrunk.” However, even stronger than these assets are the visuals and soundtrack.
To get the already hailed-to-the-Moon-and-back song selections out of the way, they were a wonderful cacophony of tunes. It plays like the finest Reader’s Digest music compilation from across the ages that you could fit in one sitting. Be it Scott Joplin or Janis Joplin, Hancock or Hendrix, the music chosen serves the film extremely well. Lee Holdridge’s original score is a beauty too, with a breathtaking overture, famously boasting an orchestral arrangement of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” and a heartbreaking take on the classic tune “As Time Goes By” late in the film. But then there’s the animation, oh boy the animation! This is Bakshi and the rotoscoping process in perfect harmony, the ultimate form of the union in my opinion. But it’s not even the rotoscoping that gets to me, but the backgrounds and art direction. The backgrounds evolve with the film’s style, which in and of itself is ever-evolving like the music it focuses on, getting more and more surreal and drug-infused that fits the addictions and dope-peddling of the film’s bottom half, particularly an infamous acid sequence employing a fisheye lens to add to the already maddening distortion. But even from the outset, the film is extremely colorful. The palette was saturated when it needed to exaggerate the colorfulness of the characters, and of music to a degree, but it could also become extremely moody and dour when needed. And as a side note, Bakshi packs the film with fun details and presentation styles, such as introducing Zalmie’s story as a silent film. All in all, it is a truly beautiful looking film. However, there are a few things holding the film back a touch.
Now, as I previously mentioned, Ronni Kern’s screenplay has a very strong premise, and to his credit, is developed enough to the point of serviceability. But, that’s the catch: the screenplay functions, but it’s not firing on all cylinders. If they could have made this film a half-hour longer, Kern’s screenplay would have enough room to add and develop on each of these guys’ stories. It may be impressive enough to break down almost a century’s worth of cultural developments into the compact frame of 96 minutes, but imagine a two-hour film of American Pop that would just be downright spectacular. However, I would be remiss to say that part of the film’s potency is the dissatisfaction of seeing these characters go down the paths that lead to dead ends. I will add that there are a few animation goofs, some just a product of the rotoscoping process such as matting the frames onto a moving background, and others an issue of the painter missing a spot. And the incorporation of actual film footage maybe a hit-or-miss affair, depending on how you feel it works within the film’s evolving aesthetic. But in the grand scheme of things, these are somewhat nitpicky details, and I feel as though they aren’t a hindrance so much as they are a mild nuisance.
When all is said and done, Bakshi’s American Pop is a wonderful tribute to the music of America. With stellar acting, a superb premise, an incredible soundtrack, and Bakshi’s brilliant visual sensibilities, we are treated to a wild ride of struggles across the years until success is finally had, but in an appropriately confounding way. And while the animation has its little off moments here and there, and the script does lack some development to launch it to be an absolutely brilliant work, these setbacks are nothing compared to the marvelous film we are treated to. So, I highly recommend this film to anyone who loves animation, music, and is willing to take the good with the bad and enjoy a film that does its damnedest with an outstanding idea. Turn up the radio and enjoy this masterful piece of animation from one the medium’s most inventive figures.
American Pop is available on DVD, and is streaming on Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, & Google Play. Emphatically recommended!