American Pop (1981)

Ralph Bakshi made The Lord of the Rings years before Peter Jackson, but his animated version has often been forgotten. After that film, he decided to create something more personal, which would feature an extensive soundtrack that would all have more meaning when seen with the film.

American Pop was the result, again taking advantage of the technique of rotoscoping, which uses an already filmed movie as the basis to animate over to capture more lifelike movement. Beyond Bakshi, the film’s other artists contributed their own individual art styles and experiences to the finished product.

Starting in Imperial Russia during the late 1890s, this movie follows the journey of the Belinksy family from escaping to New York City all the way through the turmoil of the next century. When Zalmie’s mother dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — which went a long way toward ending sweatshops in this country — he begins to work in vaudeville, even after his throat is injured during World War I. Now with no singing voice of his own, Zalmie pushes the career of his wife Bella no matter what it takes, even working with mob boss Nicky Palumbo. She’s killed by a bomb and a gang war begins in earnest (Bakshi freely samples from other films here, basing the artwork on scenes from The Public Enemy).

Zalmie and Bella’s son Benny becomes a jazz pianist but is forced to marry the daughter of Palumbo. Seeking some sort of redemption for his mobbed out family, he enlists in World War II but is killed by a Nazi soldier.

His son Tony must watch as the mob bosses curse his grandfather for testifying against them. He grows up to drive across the nation, meet up with a band and become their writer before descending into drug addiction along with their lead singer, Frankie Heart.

At a tumultuous show in Kansas, Frankie overdoses backstage while Tony meets Little Pete, who he recognizes as his son from a one night stand with a waitress. He takes the boy to New York City as he goes deeper into drug dealing and addiction. Pete then becomes a dealer himself, selling to bands until he demands that they listen to his music before he sells them any more cocaine. The story ends with Pete playing Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” while we see images of all the members of the Belinksy family that have come before him.

The real actors in this movie include Ron Thompson as Tony and Pete; Lisa Jane Persky as Bella; Mews Small, who originated the role of Frenchy in Grease on Broadway as Frankie; Roz Kelly, better known as Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days, as Eva; Richard Moll, who must be in every 1980’s movie plays The Poet; Joey Camen, the voice of McGruff the crime dog, is Freddie; Lynda Wiesmeier, the July 1982 Playboy Playmate of the Month, as The Blonde who Frankie meets in Kansas and Lee Ving and Fear as the punk rockers.

American Pop is packed with bands and performers like Bob Dylan, George Gershwin, The Mamas & the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Lou Reed and more, but tying up the music rights meant that this film wasn’t released to home video until 1998.

This film played repeatedly late nights on VH1 throughout the 2000’s. While heavy-handed in parts, it’s still worth a watch to see how music and violence equally shaped America over the last hundred years.

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