Ralph Bakshi's animated epic tells the story of four generations of a musical family and how their struggles parallel American history in the 20th century.
American Pop (1981) is a powerful animated feature film that uses popular music as a means to highlight significant events in American history dating from the late 1890s to the early 1980s. Director/animator Ralph Bakshi gives the film a sweeping epic feel and is able to keep the viewer engrossed through great storytelling, pop-culture imagery, and classic music.
The film chronicles four generations of an American family and how music is the thread that ties all these generations together. It begins in the late 1890s with the story of Zalmie Belinksy, a Russian Jewish boy who flees with his mother to America from Tsar-ruled Russia because of Anti-Jewish pogroms (organized violent attacks against Jews) carried out by the Cossacks. Zalmie and his mother were forced to leave his rabbi father behind, as he refused to leave until he had finished leading the communal prayer and was killed by the Cossacks.
Zalmie and his mother land in New York during the ragtime era at the turn of the 20th century. Bakshi effectively captures the mood and atmosphere of this period. The air is filled with ragtime music, and burlesque houses, saloons and music halls line the streets. Young Zalmie starts hanging around small-time vaudevillians and is soon completely immersed in this world. He eventually becomes an all-around performer on the vaudeville circuit: singer, comic, dancer, etc. As he grows older, he is also introduced to the seedier elements of show business, a world filled with mobsters and sundry lowlifes.
The film follows Zalmie’s character through World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World World II and the beginning of the McCarthy era. A number of unfortunate events sideline Zalmie’s career, so he transfers all of his showbiz dreams onto his piano-playing son, Benny, a musical prodigy. But those dreams are dashed when Benny enlists in the army and is killed by a German soldier during World War II. Thus, it’s up to Benny’s son, Tony, to carry on the family’s musical tradition.
Tony is probably the most intriguing character in the entire film. He’s a brilliant yet tortured individual whose weaknesses eventually overpower his great gifts. Tony’s character carries the film from the late-1950s through the early ‘70s. A restless kid, Tony leaves his suburban home in Long Island while still in his teens and heads for California. Once he arrives in San Francisco, he dives headlong into the hippie counterculture scene of the 1960s.
A talented harmonica player and songwriter, he begins writing songs for a Jefferson Airplane/ Big Brother and the Holding Company-type band. His involvement with the band pulls him into the crazy and chaotic world of rock and roll, a world of excessive drugs, wild sex and non-stop partying. He soon develops a huge heroin addiction, which ultimately destroys his life and his musical dreams.
This film is filled with great pop-culture images and classic songs from the 20th century, and Bakshi does a tremendous job of incorporating these images and songs into the storyline. There are several amazing musical montages that fuse great iconic images with classic music. These montages cover different time periods and historical events. One of them is a terrific World War II montage set to Benny Goodman’s rousing rendition of “Sing, Sing, Sing.” The segment intercuts images of soldiers on the battlefield with lively couples swing dancing. The segment also has images of the explosive and acrobatic Nicholas Brothers dance team. It is a truly captivating segment where the images seem to jump right off the screen.
Other great musical segments include an animated Jimi Hendrix doing a wild and electrifying performance of “Purple Haze" and an excellent punk-rock montage during the mid-1970s segment. Bakshi utilized a variety of animation techniques and other mixed media for the film, including rotoscoping, computer graphics, live-action shots, water colors and archival footage.
Probably the weakest part of the film is the final section which involves Tony’s son, Pete, a drug dealer and aspiring rock star. Pete’s story, while interesting, doesn’t quite have the same tragic power of the others. That’s not to say that the character is not engaging. Pete has a cockiness and swagger that his father didn’t possess, and he also doesn't have Tony's self-destructiveness . In addition, unlike his father, he’s extremely ambitious and won’t let anyone or anything stand in his way of becoming a huge rock star. Pete’s story covers the mid-to-late '70s, and there are some great images and music from the emerging punk scene. Pete’s story wraps up the film nicely on a triumphant note.
This animated feature is an absorbing film from start to finish, and Bakshi should be applauded for making this sprawling and ambitious epic such an enjoyable viewing experience. And much credit should also go Ronni Kern for writing such a fantastic screenplay. In addition, the voice actors do a stellar job of bringing the animated characters to life. Ron Thompson voiced Tony and Pete; Marcello Krakoff voiced little Zalmie, and Jeffrey Lippa voiced adult Zalmie; and Richard Singer voiced Benny. The other voice actors do an equally great job in voicing their characters in the film.
American Pop is moving in a way that you wouldn't expect of an animated film. For some odd reason, the animation seems to enhance the film's overwhelming pathos and wistfulness. It is probably the saddest animated feature this viewer has ever seen, and that's not a bad thing.
(originally published at Suite101.com)
American Pop at Amazon