Title: American Pop (1981)
Director: Ralph Bakshi
I’ve reviewed a couple of Ralph Bakshi’s animated films here on The Film Connoisseur and I’ve noticed how they all have a couple of things in common, first, they are very street, always about the struggles of the working class against the system. They are about the hustlers, trying to survive in this big bad world. The counter culture always works itself into his plots somehow. The nature of the animation is always sketchy, but very much alive. His cartoon characters, though animated caricatures, are always laced with reality, a reflection of society. Music also plays a big part in Bakshi’s films, it almost seems to be symbiotically entwined with his animated images. So does dancing, and the Jewish people. American Pop has all these things and one added element that is seldom found in a Bakshi film: coherence!
American Pop is an epic animated film that spans various decades and four generations of a Jewish family. From the very beginning, the family we follow always leans towards the entertainment world, towards the music, towards the performing arts. “It’s the music I love” says one of the main characters at one point. We always follow the male of the family, from generation to generation, each generation confronting a stumbling block that doesn’t allow them to reach maximum potential, that doesn’t allow them to be who they really want to be. These are all talented characters in their own way, but be it drugs, or marriage or war…something always seems to get in the way of art, of getting that big break in life, of making it big. Will someone in the lineage ever truly make it?
Gotta give kudos to Bakshi here, this is, I’m pretty sure, one of his best films, if not his best one. I’ve yet to see more of his films because some are difficult to get a hold of. But if I’m to judge his body of work by what I have seen, I’d say that American Pop is Bakshi’s masterpiece. It’s his best structured film, it seems focused and with a purpose, something I never got with Fritz the Cat (1972) which is kind of scattershot and surreal. American Pop has a feel of someone who wants to tell a clear story, to make a point and I loved that about it. Out of all of Bakshi’s films, I’d say this one has the most control over storytelling and the best written one. I loved how the film is structured, how we go from generation to generation seeing how each confronts the society of their time, be it gangsters or the Second World War, or drug addiction and the counter culture. We go from family member to family member until we finally meet the most driven one, the one that’s destined to make it no matter what, “the chosen one” so to speak; the one for whom all the stars aligned. The film made me think about generations of my family and what we have collectively achieved.
Bakshi’s characters all have these realistic movements and gestures because almost the entire film is ‘rotoscoped’, which is an animation technique where they film the live action performances and animate over these performances; not unlike today’s motion captured performances, in fact, rotoscoping is the grand daddy of the motion capture technique. The result is that the animated characters have very realistic gestures and movements. But still, if the performances and the movements that are rotoscoped aren’t any good, then your movie won’t be any good either, just look at the mess that is Cool World (1992) to see what I mean. What amazed me about American Pop is how good the performances where, you almost get a feeling like American Pop could have been made live action and it would have been just fine. These characters are alive! They got attitude, they got things on their minds and they are going to say them! There are some tragic moments that will pull your heart strings and there are very sweet tender moments of love and human connection that will get to you. There’s this scene where one of the characters falls in love with a dancer, and without saying a word they both know they want each other; what amazed me about the scene was how we get all this not from dialog, but from animated images that transmit these ideas and emotions without a single word.
At the same time, American Pop is also about the evolution of American music, hence, the title of the film. We see American Music go from big band, to jazz, to hippy rock, to punk, to the birth of rock and roll, to every kind of music you can think of. We go from Ira Gershwin to Bob Dylan, to the Doors, to the Mamas and the Papas, I tell ya, this soundtrack is truly amazing. So many awesome bands and songs, this is a soundtrack you will want to have. There are many things that make American Pop the pinnacle of Bakshi’s abilities as a storyteller and a director. It is an ambitious decades spanning story that will get to you in the end, and for this and many other reasons you can discover when you see the film for yourself, I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of animation, but also to those who love their films entwined with emotions and real characters that suffer and feel; characters that never give up and in the end, triumph. This is truly a criminally underrated piece of animation that should be viewed and spoken about a hell of a lot more.
Rating: 5 out of 5