Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 6: American Pop
American Pop (1981) tells the story of a Jewish American family over multiple generations from fleeing a pogrom in Russia to selling coke to New York punk bands. It’s Bakshi’s mostly completely realized film after Coonskin, and the one that feels least compromised by budget constraints and studio shenanigans. The script, though written by Ronni Kern, lends itself narratively and structurally to Bakshi’s preferred aesthetic approach. Collage and rotoscoping are both excellent tools for showing the progression of time and the evolution of a family as they meet the challenges of 20th century American life. A flexible approach is perfect for a film that makes several drastic narrative shifts during its relatively short length, and the fact that Bakshi was able to license an incredible soundtrack for his pop music period epic is crucial to making the entire piece hang together as well as it does.
Multi-generational stories that follow a long succession of main characters through a cavalcade of popular culture styles and historical eras are not typical in animation. Most of the time, stories like this are produced as three-hour live action epics designed to win awards or earn studio prestige. Since animation is expensive and time-consuming, a three-hour film probably wasn’t possible in this case. Additionally, the American animation industry has an almost insatiable addiction to fantasy stories, using animation’s expressive powers of abstraction to render “the impossible” onscreen. It’s much more unusual for the American industry to produce a rotoscoped film that tends to stick pretty closely to naturalistic character movements and historical settings.
Nevertheless, within that framework, Bakshi is able to produce some truly memorable moments of stylization. Most often, this happens during montages set to period-appropriate popular music. Much of the last ten minutes of American Pop is dedicated to three musical passages that tell the story of our final protagonist, Peter, and his ascent from homeless pusher man to stadium rock god. But perhaps by beginning at the end, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For the first part of the film represents one of the most fascinating stylistic choices Bakshi uses in this bricolage of a movie.
American Pop begins with a scene of a pogrom in a Russian Jewish village pretend as a silent film. All dialogue appears on parchment-and-ink titles and the film is dimmed and desaturated. Our young first protagonist, Zalmie Belinsky, escapes to New York with his mother, immersing themselves into the tangled world of early 1900s America. The film handles this idea elegantly:
The transitions here communicate the central concept of the film: for Jewish immigrants––and minority cultures in general––being successful in the United States was often antithetical to living according to inherited traditions. Over the course of American Pop, each successive protagonist becomes more and more distant from their Jewish roots, their lives and ideals progressively assimilating to those of the American “normal.”
Each of the different protagonists in the movie corresponds not only to a specific historical time and generation but also to a popular music/entertainment style. For Zalmie, it’s vaudeville and stage comedy. His son, Benny, is a jazz pianist, and the grandson, Tony, becomes a songwriter for a 60s rock band. Finally, his son, Peter, as mentioned, becomes a rock star and drug pusher for the punk scene.
Critically, each generational transition is punctuated by a major historical event that parallels a moment of personal transition. Every generation throws off some or other aspect of their parents’ legacy. Zalmie forgoes his religious education to work the music halls and theatres. Benny, who is friendly with his father but quietly ashamed of his family’s connections to the Mafia, rejects that legacy and enlists in battle in WWII to win redemption. Tony abandons his family to to pursue the life of a Beat poet and, later, a hippie, fleeing to California to escape his suburban confines. Finally, Peter, who has to care for his then drug-addicted father more than vice-versa, sloughs off all ideals and becomes a hard-driven individualist with no family or personal ties. By this time, Peter has lost all traces of any Jewish identity, sporting all-American blonde hair and blue eyes. Though he does dig the beat of a Jewish prayer in one of the most powerful moments in the film.
The reason why I would name this the most purely enjoyable of Bakshi’s movies is that its story is ultimately the clearest and most coherent––not to mention thematically sound––of his body of work. Plot events come quickly and character deaths are often treated abruptly, but the film never fails to orient the audience and establish clear motivations and arc for the protagonists. And it manages to pass the torch from male sire to male sire with minimal disruption. To sum it up, the movie smooths out the usual Bakshi rough edges for the most part. It’s certainly not as enthusiastic or joyous as Heavy Traffic and Coonskin in their best moments, but it’s far easier to stick with it through the entire running time.
Another reason I’ve mentioned for American Pop’s success is Bakshi’s mastery of the details of each pop culture period examined. The soundtrack is astounding and used appropriately, whether to juxtapose the wild party life of 1940s America with life on the European front lines or to simply frame a train ride through the mountains. Of course, the songs also provide for some of the most expressionistic and wild imagery Bakshi has to offer. Much of it is presented through mixed media––stock footage, painted backdrops, slideshows of old photographs (pulled off much more dynamically than in the somnambulant Ken Burns movies). There’s even a scene that uses early computer graphics to accentuate the more intense visual spectacle of early 80s music.
Even better, though Bakshi––and the script he’s working with––clearly have the most affection for the counterculture of the 60s and 70s since it was their own time––their treatment of other eras and styles is neither condescending nor rose-tinted. The movie might have a critical view of American liberal individualism and a clear eye for how drugs could have a devastating impact on people’s lives, it tries to show us each cultural moment or trend in its own context. We come to understand why this new style, this new piece of clothing, this attitude, is attractive to each of the protagonists and their friends. Characterization isn’t brilliant across the board––once again, women tend to be flat where the plot seems to want more rounded and complex characters––but the fusion of personal narrative, historical context, and flashy pop flare is pulled off uniquely well on the whole.
And, on a technical level, American Pop is, with Lord of the Rings, the film that best uses rotoscoping for its overall goals. Reproducing dance steps, rock posturing, and expressive movements with uncanny closeness allows Bakshi to ground his flights of fancy and mixed media in a recognizable world. It’s much closer to moving illustration than classical American cartooning, and only a few scenes (particularly one in a cornfield) feature awkward or unnatural blocking that can look a bit too stagey. If you feel like you have an innate dislike of rotoscoping, this would be the film I would recommend to break that resistance. I hate the idea that movies have to justify being animated if they don’t have fantasy or science fiction worlds to depict and aren’t comedies, and American Pop is a great counter-example.
As an exercise in large-scale storytelling and episodic structure with a strong overarching theme, Pop is a wonderful synthesis of on-point writing and a director willing to push the boundaries of visual storytelling through mixed media and animation. I find it endlessly rewatchable, especially the last fifteen minutes or so, and it has some of the best characters Bakshi ever put on screen. I cannot recommend it enough and would probably say it’s one of Bakshi’s most popularly accessible works. It’s a work born out of love for American pop traditions, and a fine piece of pop art in its own right.
American Pop also served as inspiration for the Hype Williams music video for Kanye West’s “Heartless.” In particular, the scene ofKanye in the car is taken directly from a scene of Tony Belinsky writing lyrics on a city bus in San Francisco. It’s a good video and homage. It also happens to pay homage to the vision of gender relations from the Bakshi original, so plus and minus points for that.