Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 27, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1981)

6. American Pop

After the box office successes of his fantasy films, Bakshi decided to return to the smaller, more personal stories that made his reputation. “American Pop” is a hugely ambitious film following four generations of the same family while also following the evolution of American pop music. (Hence the title.)

After a long opening credits sequence, an overture of sorts, the story opens in 1890s Russia with a family of Jews fleeing religious persecution. This opening sequence’s dialogue is told through silent movie-style titles. The family soon reaches the new world, America, "the country were dreams come true.". From there, the film walks through the musical movements and events of the decades. From the burlesque bars of the early 1900s, the unionization of American workers, World War I, the roaring twenties, the birth of jazz, prohibition, the rise of the organized crime, the great depression, World War II, swing music, the creation of suburbia and the modern nuclear family in the 1950s, the Beatnik culture, the birth of modern folk music, hippies, acid rock, drug addiction, punk, and into the (then-)modern age of the early 1980s. Each generation is shown as making their own unique stamp on popular culture.

Condensing nearly a hundred years worth of history and music into ninety minutes would be a daunting task for even the best filmmaker. That’s the major problem with “American Pop.” It’s too short. The movie constantly changes protagonists, leaving us with at least a dozen major characters and none of them developed beyond general ideas. One of the sons doesn’t get more then, maybe, ten minutes of screen time. A rock band’s rise to fame happens mostly off-screen. Since the film’s casts and its concepts are innately tied together, some major areas of pop culture are brushed over. The entire hippy movement and Vietnam are basically relegated to one montage. Punk and all of the seventies similarly take up only a few minutes of screen time. For all the time spent on the 1950s, we never really get a good sense of the musical evolution of that era. The movie obviously tries but the run time is a seriously hindrance. “American Pop” probably would have been better served as a mini-series, spread out over many hours.

The second major problem sadly has nothing to do with writing or pacing. As in his last film, Bakshi uses rotoscoping as a shortcut and a crutch. All the main characters in the film are drawn over footage of existing actors. There’s so much of it that you begin to wonder why the movie was even animated to begin with. To save on costuming, production design, and location shooting? This is easily a story that could have been told in live action. (And perhaps better.) The rotoscoping isn’t always successful either, giving character’s very strange facial expressions or sometimes looking like nothing but color scribbled over a moving blob. As a cost-saving effort, it’s fine. As a creative process, rotoscoping does nothing but limit the director’s vision.

The movie’s still not bad, despite its glaring flaws. The soundtrack is, obviously, fantastic. Sam Cooke and Cole Porter are used as a reoccurring motif throughout. George Gershwin, Jimmi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, and Pat Benatar are all prominently featured. Aside from the main songs, Lee Holdridge’s orchestral soundtrack is quite nice, opening up the epic scope of the story while grounding the more personal moments.

Occasionally, the film steps outside of its determined, realistic animation style. This leads to the wilder, best moments. A montage of World War II artillery, gun fire, and battlefield, is cut with rowdy footage of swing dancers. A character’s acid trip during a rock concert leads to an effective freak-out scene that combines animation and live-action. A montage showing drug dealing during the punk age is effectively, and literally, colorful. Many of the backgrounds are painted and frequently full of exaggerated faces and people, a curious decision. The softer, more character-orientated moments are nice too. A young couple stripped down in front of each other, totally in silence. Later on, a son has to protect his drug-addled father from being mugged. Another scene involving the same characters, set on a park bench, says a lot with a little. More scenes showing that level of pathos or creativity would have been greatly appreciated.

The sequences set in the fifties and sixties are the film’s best. No doubt, Bakshi’s personal experiences during these times are a huge reason why. Tony is the most developed and interesting of the film’s characters. The character’s “On the Road” style trip across America finishes up with Kansas, cornfields, and a beautiful blonde waitress. His subsequent involvement with a sixties rock band and the quick fall from fame are also interesting, especially his reaction to the death of a character modeled after Janis Joplin. The early moments set in the 1900s are also exciting, if only perhaps that’s an under-explored period on film. Scratchy-voiced Zelmie is probably my favorite character. (The time period also allows Bakshi to once again let us know how much he hates organized crime.) The Pete character in the late seventies is definitely the most exaggerated and cartoonish person in the film. Ron Thompson’s over-the-top vocal performance doesn’t help any.

The story’s climax is definitely a let-down. Pete’s rise to rock stardom seems really easy. The music choices during this segment makes Bakshi seem wildly out of touch. The culmination of eighty years of American pop music is… Bob Seger? Kids at in a packed arena cheer on… “Devil in a Blue Dress?” “Crazy on You?” Seriously? Out of all the great post-punk and new wave music of the early 1980s, this is what the director came up with? Maybe it’s easier to pick out the great music of a time period in retrospect.

Was “American Pop” Bakshi’s bid for mainstream critical success? Perhaps. Either way, relying on easy methods and canning up his creativity to tell a more down-to-Earth story holds the film back. Even then, it’s not a total failure. “American Pop” has some shining moments. Fans of pop music will probably find something worth while here. [Grade: B-]

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