Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Film Review: American Pop

As you might have guessed from the playlist I posted earlier today I watched American Pop. I loved it but I do have a few criticisms. That said most of those criticisms are understandable due to the limitations of the type of story the film is trying to tell.

First off some background on Ralph Bakshi.

By the 50's the animation ghetto started appearing, due to the fact that Disney was one of the only major feature length animation studios in the business after the studio model fell. And Disney has and probably always will rely on its family friendly image.

Bakshi hated this and spent his career trying to show people that animation wasn't just for kids but a medium that could be used to tell a lot of different kinds of stories.

As a result Bakshi is known for three things. First off trying to make adult animation. The definition of "adult" changes depending on ... stuff, but the point is his stuff aint just for kids, heck some of it aint for 'em period. Second is the general weirdness in his movies. He likes fantasy. This is the guy who tackled Lord of the Rings first.

Third is his use of rotoscoping, a technique where the animators draw over real actors. For a more modern example A Scanner Darkly was mostly rotoscoped.

Now on to American Pop. Basically it uses the lives of four generations of a family to try to quickly encapsulate the essence of four American media cultural movements, vaudeville, jazz, psychedelic rock, and punk. Overall I think the film succeeds in what it is trying to do.

A lot of people say that the individual protagonists aren't given much time, but in my view that's a result of them not being the true protagonist. The true star of American Pop is American Pop. The film is trying to tell the story of American music as best it can as a 90 minute feature film. Like I said most of my criticisms come as a result of constraints of the medium. Not animation, but narrative. Ken Burns has made a documentary series on just one of these sub genres.

Furthermore there are a lot of genres that are just plain old fashioned left out. Rockabilly and funk are hardly mentioned.

Part of what makes me like the film is that I like the idea of American Chronicles, especially around this time of the year. How did we become who we are? Well part of that question can be answered by charting American culture and by extension American music. How do we express who we are, what we feel is important, and what are our frustrations and fears?

But like I said the story hampered by the constraints of narrative. Lets take Roots. By the way I dislike Roots. Mostly because Alex Haley, plagiarized it. When I found that out it was like finding out Santa wasn't real. But I will admit as a multi-generational narrative it works better, largely because it has more characters and more time to explore historical themes.

You spend maybe an episode and a half with each generation so you know more of what's going on in their heads. That said I do appreciate Bakshi's visuality. He doesn't always have the time to say that part of the reason why some of the characters are the way they are is result of the relationships or lack thereof they have with their fathers, but he does manage to get it across visually. Take Pete, the punk, being more or less abandoned on a street bench as his dad pawns his guitar for heroin. He wears virtually the same clothes and is in the same position in a time skip but his facial expression says it all.

Similarly, Tony, Pete's' father continuously carries around his late father's harmonica and even gives it to Pete before the aforementioned abandonment.

But the films soundtrack also brings the emotion. It's a movie about music and uses some of the best cuts of the last century to tell the tale. More movies should use "As Time Goes By" as a leitmotif. Oh wait.

Also the movie has a lot of historical parallels. For instance Tony's segment starts with him in a bar listening to "Howl", and eventually pulling a Jack Kerouac. Zalmie, our vaudevillian protagonist's mother dies in what is probably the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.

And yes there are WWII and WWI scenes.

But like I said before the film is constrained by the limited time it has to tell the narrative. I really would like more of a miniseries like this. Often the time skips in the film force you to guess for what's going on. Again the music and visuality help, but sometimes you just need more. For instance the film never explicitly tells you that Pete is Tony's son. You have to just kind of guess that from clues the film gives you, like the fact that Pete has the same "Corny" hair as that nice girl Tony had a time with 10 years before this weird kid starts following him around. That's a lot of detail to ask an audience to keep in their head for something so important.

I like this movie and I admire what it was trying to do, but this is one of the few films I say needs a remake. Partially because of the aforementioned flaws, but also as the tale of American culture I'd like to see the next 30 years. The punk portion of the film feels a little weird. That is probably because it was made in '81 relatively early in the punk movement. For reference, Never Mind the Bollocks, the landmark Sex Pistols Album was released in '77.

American Pop can be seen for free at

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