There are essentially two Ralph Bakshis: the sleazo mack daddy who loves to draw bouncy tits (Fritz the Cat, Hey Good Lookin’, Cool World, the awful and short-lived HBO series Spicy City), and the serious artist who strives to render complete and complex worlds in purely iconographic terms (Fritz the Cat again, Coonskin, his disappointing but conscientious fantasy projects Lord of the Rings and Wizards). What surprised me about American Pop, seeing it again after about fifteen years, was how raunchy it isn’t, given Bakshi’s rep as an X-rated Disney. When a bashful young man visits a demurely half-dressed stripper in her dressing room, Bakshi is just as bashful and demure about cutting away from what happens between them.
In a whiplash 96 minutes, American Pop spans from turn-of-the-century Russia to late-1970s America. Bakshi’s conceit is that we’re following four generations of musicians, and though this results in some simplistic character development (the script, prepared by Ronni Kern, is a tad clichéd at times), it functions well and unobtrusively as a basic narrative spine for Bakshi’s real project: a visual and musical survey of a century of pop culture. The opening scenes, for example, are done in the style of silent films, complete with title cards. And the film’s title, of course, has a double meaning: It’s about fathers and sons.
Each of the four main characters resembles the cultural icons of his period. Zalmie, the Russian immigrant (he’s like young Vito Corleone in Godfather II), becomes a kind of Milton Berle-esque figure (pun intended) until a wound incurred in WWI ends his singing career. His son Benny is a lackadaisical piano man who pauses to father a son before getting killed in WWII. Benny’s son Tony, the character who gets the most screen time (perhaps because his time frame mirrors Bakshi’s coming of age), begins as a Brando clone in the ’50s, falls in with Allen Ginsberg-type hipsters in the early ’60s, and becomes a drug-addled hippie (Jim Morrison?) writing songs for a Grace Slick/Janis Joplin-type singer in the late ’60s. While passing through Kansas (“Kansas is corny!” he screams), Tony has a one-night stand with a waitress, unwittingly siring the fourth and last musician — Pete, who has more talent than any of his ancestors and looks like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Elvis Costello (and a touch of Lou Reed).
American Pop isn’t perfect. I’m still not sure how to feel about Bakshi’s controversial rotoscoping technique (i.e., tracing live-action figures), which he started with Lord of the Rings. Sometimes it looks kind of weird. And the movie isn’t as ballsy as Coonskin (stupidly given the PC title Streetfight for video), a powerful examination of racism that used stereotypes in order to explode them. Coonskin is, I think, Bakshi’s masterpiece; American Pop is his epic, a sprawling and messy work whose flaws are inextricable from its brilliance. Bakshi was limited to music he could afford — you won’t hear Elvis or the Beatles in this history of pop music — but the movie is still richly textured with the music he could use, from vaudeville-era tunes to Pat Benatar’s “Hell Is for Children.” (I never think of that song as being about child abuse. I associate it with Pete getting up off the bus-stop bench.)
The film is frequently moving as only a messy, imperfect film can be. The mood is heavy with regret over wasted talent, wasted lives. There are wonderful, understated bits, like an anguished Tony in his dark, squalid apartment calling a “friend” to see if he can score some smack. Or a group of people just standing around shooting the shit (Bakshi’s signature visual). In quiet moments like these, Bakshi’s rotoscoping makes sense: the people onscreen move — and stay still — like real people, instead of being ridiculously overarticulated. (For a laughable example of the latter, check out the little girl near the beginning of 1981’s Heavy Metal; she looks like Seinfeld‘s Elaine Benes doing her full-body dry heave.)
One musical quibble, though: Leonard Maltin’s review goofs on the movie because it “culminates in the creation of punk rock.” It’d be nice if that were true, but it isn’t. The culmination of four generations of failed musicians is actually Bob Seger. Pete, who works as a coke dealer to rock stars, talks a band into playing one of his songs, and it’s that tedious perennial “Night Moves.” (Apologies to Seger fans, but the guy’s music just never did it for me.) Then we see Pete onstage — the musician in the family who finally made it — and he’s playing a medley of songs including “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Devil with a Blue Dress.” And the song under the closing credits? Lynyrd Skynyrd’s bloated “Free Bird,” beloved by DJs who have to go take a shit. (An orchestral arrangement of the song also adorns the opening credits.) Is Bakshi saying that the future of pop is either pretentious arena rock or endless rehashes of golden oldies? If so, his movie is even more depressing than I gave it credit for. And more accurate, too. Either way, though, American Pop transcends its flaws and pays homage to the evolution of two great art forms — pop music and animation. There hasn’t been an American animated film since that has approached or even attempted this movie’s ambition and reach; there may well never be again.