Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981) is an animated film about the trajectory of pop music and songwriting in America over the course of four generations of aspiring musicians; Zalmie, Ben, Tony, and Lil’ Pete. It is an exceptional film, enough that I need to write about it. A true living painting, tracked to some of the best popular music of the past century, from vaudevillian troop numbers, to Joplin and Hendrix, to punk rock. It is a richly painted film, animated in rotoscope, with a unique and vivid style. It doesn’t look or sound like anything else, making it feel timeless. It is rich in storytelling, relying on story, song, and character to enrich the remarkable living paintings.
It is a movie that does not need to tap into the shock value of pathos to make viewers feel like they got their money’s worth. It has the immersive atmosphere of campfire storytelling safety. We are free to feel all of the things that these brilliant and often struggling artists are feeling, without the suspenseful fear of violent, gut-grabbing, perceptual wrenches. It’s not one of those movies where you’re are always psychologically waiting for the other shoe to drop (which is an addictive, profitable, and cheap trick in film).
American Pop’s story and striking visual art invites you in, and you can relax and delight in it. More interestingly, American Pop does not shy away from the more trying realities of the artistic life; addiction, estrangement, emotional turmoil, economic hard times. What’s more, Bakshi weaves in many of the most affective cultural fractures and upheavals of America’s history into the changing American Pop – world wars, gang wars, jazz lore, family sagas.
Bakshi’s picture does a great job of making palpable the rich and varied emotional lives of the artistic temperament. Sometimes emotions can really seem to climb out of the body and affect the world around you. Empathy proves this. Emotions act like pan-dimensional intelligences with their own goals, and humans are only one of the vessels they inhabit. The living painting of American Pop is a beautiful illustration of this concept.
Aside from the remarkable music (showtunes, big band, jazz, rock and roll, punk rock), American Pop is sparsely and densely written. The script does not waste any words, and every scene is laden with a bundle of story. If you didn’t hear a snippet of dialogue, just wait for the next time you watch it. It’ll be fun, trust me.
About an hour or so into the movie, the part of my mind that pays attention to characters felt like resting, and I zoned out for a mental breather and paid disproportionate attention to only the music, or certain evocative animations, and missed big story chunks. On repeat watches I have experienced increased pleasure at having the chance to pay attention to parts that I’d only overheard the time before. It’s a cool and very high quality movie; much better than I expected it to be.
Visually, Bakshi conveys a world that is aged, imperfect, and beautiful. The depictions of Vaudville, the curvy dancers, the dancing horses, clown comics – wow. Then watching the pop music scene grow from Vaudville to beer halls to phonograph records, and the money started rolling in. For some, at least. And that is all just the stuff before television!
The story travels west, just like America did, from Ellis Island to San Francisco over the course of 100 years of popular music. And all the while does a convincing and absorbing job of relating the spirits of the various eras within that century. Such a good story, rendered with inspired brushes.
Definitely watch American Pop.
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!