American Pop (1981)

Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop” is not so much about a story as it is about music and the power it holds. As trite as it is to say, Music is the soundtrack of our lives, and as such has a power over us to help us cope, help us think, and is the key to our memories and fates. “American Pop” is not so much the story of many men through history originating from a faithful Jewish man who refused to vacate his temple during the raiding of Russian Czars one day, it’s more the evolution of music and how the people in and around the transformation are but a mere microcosm. From a Canter to a Vaudevillian, to a piano player, “American Pop” may be the exploration of music but Bakshi also manages to convey how it’s served as a source of love and emotion for a long line of men craving some sort of love and affection in their lives.

Instead they found it in violence, and the false assumption that money and drugs bought it. Bakshi’s animation is strong if much too dependent on rotoscoping. Though the animation director has always had the precedent of relying on rotoscoping, “American Pop” is about ninety-nine percent rotoscoping, the other one based on live action. There’s also the shocking finale in which we’re introduced to a jive talking smooth moving drug dealing blond kid whose father was a drug using bastard Tony, the main character for much of the film. He coasts through city streets with punks and losers and hookers, and he enters in to a recording studio threatening to leave as their dealer if they don’t hear his music. This hardcore punk plays… “Night Moves” from Bob Seger. What? That’s the big build up?

Nonetheless, the marginalized albeit look at the men of this long line going from pure Jewish to pure blue eye blond hints at potential story threads with Tony being the most interesting as a man void of anything in his life looking for a way to fill it. There’s also the bittersweet defeat of the young piano player Benny, another man desperate to fill a void in his life after watching his mother die from a letter bomb and then being disowned by his father for joining the military. That’s sadly wasted for more in your face looks at the darker side of the evolution of the sound of generations with the final being expressed by Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children.” But there’s a significant problem.

Where’s Bo Diddley, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Motown, Aretha Franklin? Null and void in Bakshi’s view of the history of music and its influences. As for “American Pop” its special effects and camera tricks are still rather eye catching, but there’s little in the way of substance to be found here. For a movie I’ve been anxious to see for years to give Bakshi another chance to wow me, it’s a shame that there’s not much to this movie. Or Bakshi. I’m still not much of a fan of Ralph Bakshi to this day. His films are important and influential but damned if they can manage to entertain me beyond a mere raised brow. “American Pop” has a wonderful soundtrack, but it fails to provide an actual story unless you look hard.