American Pop

After 17 years spent accumulating a reputation as a great lost work, Ralph (Fritz The Cat, Lord Of The Rings, Cool World) Bakshi's 1981 film American Pop is receiving its first release on video. One of the most ambitious animated projects ever made, American Pop traces the family history of four generations of musicians, from an immigrant child who works in Vaudeville through his bastard great-grandson, a blond '80s rock idol. The film has its share of problems: Bakshi's style relies heavily upon rotoscoping—the tracing of live-action footage to create animation—and this approach takes some getting used to. Once that's accomplished, there's the abbreviated, often simple-minded view of history. Brief dramatic scenes at times seem to have been included only because the plot has to be advanced by some means other than montage sequences featuring popular songs. And while not excluded, the role of blacks in popular music, not to mention black popular music, is marginalized. Furthermore, especially in the post-World War II sequences, the characters grow thinner and the situations broader: One scene, in which a Kerouac-inspired traveling songwriter hooks up with some free-spirited, pot-smoking Californians, lacks only a voiceover announcing, "And that's how the beatniks turned into hippies." American Pop's conclusion may be its most puzzling facet. Perhaps Bakshi couldn't accurately place the music of his time in its historical context—who can?—but there's something wrong with a celebration of American music that reaches its climax when a young, punk-like New Yorker finally gets a chance to sing a song he's written from the heart, a song that turns out to be "Night Moves" by Bob Seger. All that aside, American Pop is still worth watching. Bakshi may not have perfectly captured eight decades of American music history, but his attempt to do so is often thrilling for reasons other than ambition. It does tend to dwell on the clichés of its musical genres—plucky kid rises in Vaudeville through sheer ambition, hipster finds America by stealing cars and riding the rails, Joplin-like musican can't handle her addictions, etc.—but the iconic medium of animation is ideal for that sort of thing. Just as he did with racist imagery in Coonskin, Bakshi gets beyond stereotypes, provoking thought about the stereotypes he's portraying. American Pop isn't as essential as that incendiary, misunderstood 1975 film, but even when it doesn't work, it's still beautiful to see and hear, and it does feature Night Court's Richard Moll reciting the poetry of Allen Ginsberg.

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