No filmmaker has worked harder than Ralph Bakshi at turning animations and animation/live-action hybrids into an adult medium, motivated by his longtime war against what he saw as the Disneyization of theatrical cartoons. Some critics have applauded his engagement with subjects rarely tackled by animators, such as urban hardships in Heavy Traffic (1973) and challenges of Black life in Coonskin (1974). Others have seen his penchant for transgressive topics and four-letter words, introduced in his comix-inspired debut feature Fritz the Cat (1972), as attention-getting stunts.
American Pop is arguably Bakshi’s most thematically mature and visually sophisticated picture, tracing the rollercoaster fortunes of a musically inclined family in a narrative spanning 80 years, four generations and two continents. The chronicle begins with the terrors of a pogrom in a Russian village, prompting a Jewish boy named Zalmie and his widowed mother to emigrate to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century. (Although Bakshi’s experience was different, he and his parents came to America from Palestine when he was a baby in the late 1930s.) Gifted with a knack for music, Zalmie carves out a career in burlesque, marries a stripper, gets involved with mobsters and raises a son named Benny, who becomes a jazz pianist and songwriter in the 1930s and ’40s. Benny’s son Tony shares the family’s musical talent but goes to the dark side, succumbing to drugs and debauchery in the supposedly swinging 1960s. His son Pete closes the family saga by becoming a music superstar.
The visual style of American Pop stands about midway between classical full animation and the limited animation of TV cartoons and Japanese anime, making extensive use of labor-saving rotoscope techniques and punctuating the narrative with live-action interludes and photomontages. Impressive though it is in musical and storytelling terms, it’s less obviously ambitious than Bakshi’s previous picture, an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings (1978), planned as a two-part film but released as a somewhat muddled single installment. The imagery of American Pop is nonetheless vivid, inventive and varied, maintaining its distinctive look while dropping occasional nods to period-appropriate artists, from the all-American icon Norman Rockwell – one of Bakshi’s favorites, surprisingly enough – to Andy Warhol, Ralph Steadman and the psychedelic poster designers of the 1960s. It all culminates with an explosive mix of sharp-edged animation, solarized concert footage and op-art abstraction in the closing punk-rock sequence. Quite a show.
The film’s other great asset is its eclectic music track, which shifts and morphs as the story proceeds through successive eras. Early scenes feature sounds from the Great American Songbook, with standards and showtunes by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern holding sway. Jazz by Herbie Hancock and the Dave Brubeck Quartet arrive a little later, along with pop singers like Fabian, the Mamas and the Papas and Sam Cooke, whose 1957 hit “You Send Me” is an unofficial theme song for part of the film. Later portions are energized by songs from Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols and other iconic acts, all artfully selected and skillfully coordinated with the visuals. The end credits thank real-life songwriters whose songs are “composed” by fictional characters within the story. For those familiar with these musical epochs, American Pop is an excellent nostalgia trip. For newcomers it should provide a speedy high-octane education.
Voices that don’t sing are also important to the picture, especially those of Ron Thompson as Tony and Pete, Lisa Jane Persky as the stripper and Richard Moll as a Beat poet. These and other elements would be less striking if the narrative didn’t work on psychological and emotional levels, but it does, although here as with most Bakshi films, reviews have been mixed over the years. American Pop closed out this major phase of his career, which became less personal starting with Fire and Ice (1983), a commercially calculated action-adventure fantasy. Bakshi may not have stopped the Disneyization of animation, but he created a body of unusual and idiosyncratic films, of which American Pop is one of the most boldly original, carefully crafted and deeply felt.