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American Pop (Ralph Bakshi, 1981)
One of the most serious-minded animated features ever made, Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop is a sustained fantasia that uses our collective musical history to examine how our country got to where it’s at. This film is nothing if not ambitious, spanning some seventy years of American life. Wars, fads, fashions and changes in attitude are all documented over the course of this rambling tale, which spans four generations. Throughout this parade of cultural touchstones, popular music’s development is traced from its roots in European religious ceremonies to vaudeville acts to jazz clubs to vocal standards to the emergence of rock and roll. Because of the sheer scale of his project, Bakshi cannot devote much time to any particular strand of his story. What he does instead, cannily, is tell his story through archetypical characters and familiar situations so that additional elaboration is usually unnecessary. The sins of the absent father are repeated here, time and again, on the sons that follow, which Bakshi, perhaps simplistically, offers as his musicians’ creative impulse. As Bakshi races through their lives, watching as they each find their muse then die tragically, American Pop moves toward an odd statement about both the possibility of upward mobility and tragic falls from grace in America.
American Pop’s sheer amount of content works more impressively in its first half, when it can hardly stop to establish a character, than it does in its second, in which Bakshi focuses on exploring the parental link between the last two characters in this chain. Still, this is a film that asks us not to consider these characters as individuals so much as people caught up in a culture that allows them to flourish then just as certainly as it forces them toward their self-destruction. The result is a different take on melodrama than the average musical biopic, in which the death of the artist is presented less a tragedy than a way of life. Perhaps most troubling in Bakshi’s selective take on history is the film’s marginalization of the contributions of African Americans to popular music. While the family that sits at the center of the film is Jewish, this omission gives American Pop a specificity that seems at odds with the overall thrust of the film, which emphasizes how history is bigger than any of these folks.
American Pop is a multimedia extravaganza that capitalizes on its animated nature without being beholden to it. Snippets of live action stock footage are frequently used to establish the shift to a new time period, many of the compositions reference familiar paintings and photographs, and the score is loaded with classic songs. The quality of the animation is variable, with Bakshi’s usual rotoscoping techniques used to bring his characters to life, even as they are often placed against completely static backgrounds. Still, the technical qualities of American Pop are perhaps its least interesting aspect. This is a film that grandly overreaches, attempting to condense a century’s worth of triumph and tragedy into ninety minutes. To a surprising degree it succeeds.