August 17, 2023

AMERICAN POP is Worth Another Look

1981 / 96 min
Available at
Review by Mr. Paws😼

1981 was sort of a banner year for adult animation, with two films being released by the same major studio. The first, Heavy Metal, achieved some notoriety for its soundtrack and has since become something of a cult classic. I remember being blown away at the time by the audacious amounts sex & violence, probably because I was high as hell.

The second film, American Pop was comparatively underwhelming. This was arguably the last creative gasp by Ralph Bakshi, somewhat notorious in the ‘70s for Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated cartoon, and taking the initial stab at adapting The Lord of the Rings to the big screen (with middling results). 

Having seen Rings and his previous film, Wizards, I was aware of Bakshi’s penchant for “rotoscoping,” which is basically tracing over live action shots to create an animated look (one could consider it the precursor to motion-capture). At any rate, I felt it was a lazy tool that Bakshi relied on way too much. Not only that, American Pop didn’t have much in the way of a story or engaging characters. And speaking as a teenage metal fan, the soundtrack was comparatively dull. 

But time can do funny things to a movie. Heavy Metal has aged terribly, and not just its sophomoric content. Even the technical aspects are sometimes kind of sloppy and amateurish compared to later adult animated films (especially the stuff coming out of Japan). 

Little Pete insists he paid this bill.
Conversely, I sort of enjoyed revisiting American Pop four decades after it bored me in theaters. Possibly due to my age, I finally appreciated what Bakshi was trying to do: Creatively chronicle the history of 20th Century American music as experienced by four generations of a family who first immigrated from Europe. 

Since it's essentially a period piece, the film seldom feels like a product of its decade. More significantly, one aspect I thought was boring in the ‘80s is actually its greatest asset: American Pop features an absolutely killer soundtrack, a mixture of classic standards spanning a half-century or so. Even the underappreciated score by Lee Holdridge deftly incorporates melodies from a variety of recognizable songs.

The film’s biggest issues remain. Transitions from one generation to the next are interesting, especially how music becomes an integral part of each person’s life (sometimes with tragic results). However, none of the characters are particularly dynamic, mostly created just to move the narrative forward. And the sequences that feature live action and rotoscoping (which still sucks) feel more like cost-cutting measures than creative decisions.

Still, American Pop is often visually engaging. Some of the actual animation is excellent, especially the unusual color palettes used for key scenes. As a purely sight & sound experience, the movie kind-of works…at least better than it did when I was a teenager. It doesn’t enjoy the cult status of Heavy Metal, but it’s a better film…and the last halfway decent one Bakshi would ever make.

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