Directed by Ralph Bakshi
Produced by Ralph Bakshi and Martin Ranshohoff
Written by Ronni Kern
Music Adaptation and Original Music by Lee Holdridge
How much do I love AMERICAN POP? I saw the movie during its original theatrical run back in 1981 in a Times Square theater. Back then, they didn’t kick you out after each show was over. If you wanted to stay there all day long and watch the same movie over and over, the management didn’t care as long as you behaved yourself. I stayed to watch AMERICAN POP three times that day. And since then I reckon I’ve seen it maybe two dozen times and I’m still enthralled by the story, the music and the animation.
The animation is done in the rotoscope style Bakshi pioneered during his heyday. Live actors are filmed and then the footage is given to animators who actually draw over the live action images frame by frame. It gave Ralph Bakshi’s movies a look totally unlike any other animated movie being done at the time and I think that he never used it better than he did in AMERICAN POP which also uses archival footage to great effect as well along with some really fabulous water color paintings in the opening credits.
I’ve argued at length with those who insist that Bakshi’s “Wizards” or “Heavy Traffic” is his masterpiece and put AMERICAN POP below those two. I don’t agree, plain and simple. None of Bakshi’s urban movies such as “Fritz The Cat” “Heavy Traffic” or “Hey, Good Lookin’” have aged well at all. But movies such as “Fire and Ice” his fantasy film collaboration with Frank Frazetta, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway along with his “Lord of The Rings” still hold up very well and are still watchable. In fact, in a lot of ways I prefer Bakshi’s single “Lord of The Rings” movie to Peter Jackson’s trilogy but that’s another review for another time.
AMERICAN POP still holds up very well due to the generational saga that it tells about an immigrant Russian Jewish family whose story is told using the history of American popular music as a backdrop. It takes us from vaudeville to the swing era to the big band era to 1950’s jazz, blues and doowop to the 1960’s folk and rock scene and ends up in the 1980’s and hard rock/punk rock ruling the music charts.
Zalmie Belinsky (Jeffrey Lippa) escapes Imperial Russia with his mother even his father is killed by Cossacks. Once in America, Zalmie is drawn to the burlesque houses and becomes the sidekick of Louie (Jerry Holland) a second rate performer who becomes his best friend and guardian when Zalmie’s mother dies in a fire. The two become an act, performing for the troops overseas in World War I. It is while performing as the bottom half of a horse act that Zalmie takes a bullet to the throat, ending his dream of becoming a singer.
Zalmie passes on his love of music to his son, Bennie. By this time Zalmie and Louie have become deeply involved in organized crime and Bennie marries the daughter of mob boss Nicky Palumbo at his father’s request. But it’s Bennie’s decision to go fight in World War II. A decision with tragic results.
Bennie’s son Tony (Ron Thompson) grows up to be an unruly, undisciplined youth with no direction and no plan for the future. But he has the same love of music that drove his father and grandfather. And while he has no talent at singing or playing musical instruments, Tony is a genius when it comes to writing songs. Here’s the part where you have to really suspend your disbelief because according to the movie, Tony writes some to the biggest hits of the 1960’s such as “This Train” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” “People Are Strange” and “Up, Up and Away.” The credits at the end of the movie acknowledge the actual writers of the song and thanks them for allowing a fictional character to take credit for the songs for the purpose of the movie. The story is that many of the artists whose songs are used in AMERICAN POP were fans of Bakshi and were delighted to have their music included. And I can believe it because the soundtrack of AMERICAN POP is nothing less than astonishing. Songs by Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke, Jefferson Airplane, Pat Benetar, The Mamas & The Papas, Lou Reed, Pete Segar and Herbie Hancock, The Doors and Fabian are used and that’s not even half of the soundtrack.
Tony’s the character we spend the most time with next to Zalmie and the most charismatic. He’s the one who seems to feel the burden of his music inheritance on a spiritual level. He combines a sort of Zen like naivety combined with an old soul that is truly appealing. He’s got most of the movie’s best scenes and lines, such as when he tells a carload of hitchhikers he’s picked up in his cross country travel that the car they’ve been riding in is stolen. And the one night stand he has with a gorgeous blonde haired girl he meets in Kansas sets up an absolutely heartbreaking use of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”
The voice work is outstanding with Ron Thompson as the voice of Tony and Tony’s son Pete leading the way. Marya Small is right behind as Frankie Hart who is a Janis Joplin style singer that meets the same sad fate. Richard Moll has a nice funny bit as a poet in a Greenwich Village coffeshop and Jerry Holland as Louie is just fun to listen to. He creates an entire character history with just his voice. You listen to Louie and you know where he’s been.
So should you see AMERICAN POP? If you haven’t then I don’t wanna know you. You homework assignment is to go see it at your earliest opportunity. I look upon it as Ralph Bakshi’s masterpiece and recommend it highly. It’s a great story with an absolutely killer soundtrack and vibrant, exciting animation that looks great in HD. Enjoy.