#1 in my ranking of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography.
Probably Ralph Bakshi’s most complex and ambitious film, American Pop is a look at four generations of musicians through the history of America across the twentieth century. Based on a script by Ronni Kern, the film holds a surprising amount of interest for its first half, easily being the best work Bakshi had ever done over a sustained period of animation, it can’t really sustain that for the whole thing, steadily degrading through its second half with a pair of less interesting characters to carry the way. And still, no one casts a shadow ever.
Zalmie (Jeffrey Lippa) flees Czarist Russia with his mother while his father, a rabbi, is murdered by the Cossacks. In America, the young boy meets a musical promoter, Louie (Jerry Holland) who, when Zalmie’s mother dies in an industrial fire, becomes Zalmie’s surrogate father, taking him through the vaudeville circuit in the early years of the twentieth century. Seemingly trapped in a perpetual physical adolescence, especially when his voice won’t mature, they go to war in Europe as entertainers when America gets involved in the Great War where Zalmie gets shot through the neck which forces his voice to mature. Back home, he meets Bella (Lisa Jane Persky), a stripper that he falls in love with and has a boy with, Benny (Richard Singer). A virtuoso, he spurns the expected of him, though he does marry a mob princess to appease his father before heading to war himself as a soldier in WWII.
Now, these first two members of the four generations are actually really interesting. Zalmie forged a life through grit and endurance in America, a place where he didn’t know the language. He raises a boy with extreme musical talent that he wants the best for, but Benny doesn’t want to do as he’s told. He heads to Europe to fight, a place where his musical genius will never be appreciated, and where it does get appreciated is the kind of beautiful irony that can come about in a war, where two people connect through something universal like music, if only for a moment that can’t last.
This is also where Bakshi embraces montage first in a showy way, and it’s really interesting. It juxtaposes the music of the 40s with images of fighting in Europe and flashes of people dancing back home, showing the kind of life that Benny chose for himself. It’s really interesting.
And then Benny’s son Tony (Ron Thompson) takes over, and the movie just becomes kind of directionless and without much in terms of any narrative drive. This may be appropriate because Tony himself is an aimless character without much in the way of drive. He goes to underground beatnik meetings in the early 50s. He wanders the streets of New York at night. His younger half-siblings have no idea how to deal with him (as well as his mother), and he takes a bit of cash from his own drawer and heads west, having a one-night stand with a waitress in Kansas, before riding the rail all the way to California where, completely talentless in music, ends up writing music for a Janis Joplin-like singer Frankie (Mews Small). It’s all of these interactions with the band that feels most aimless since it’s both weird that Tony becomes so important to them but also gets cast aside so easily. I suppose there’s something about him being a drugged out loser, but the leaving seems to happen while he’s in the hospital from falling during a concert (while drugged out, of course).
He catches up, joins their tour until Kansas when Frankie dies of an overdose and, coincidentally, Tony’s son with the waitress, Pete (also Thompson), is waiting there just to listen. Tony figures out the connection, and he brings Pete along to New York where Tony slowly dies of his drug addiction. This whole Tony section is a drag. It’s not without merit, it provides a kind of look at the 60s that resembles a more refined take than some of what Bakshi had been trying to do in Fritz the Cat, but it simply takes too long, and the part of the film that probably suffers most for it is the final section around Pete through the 70s. He’s a drug dealer who wants a band to play his music. Most of the section is a surrealist look at Pete handing off drugs throughout the city, which is interesting to watch, and then he gets the band to let him play and we get a final montage of Pete playing his music over images from the film. Pete is barely a character, and I could have really used another ten minutes with him, especially at the expense of Tony.
This is really interesting stuff overall. I don’t think it comes together, to be honest, but it might be Bakshi’s best film anyway. It’s his most restrained and focused stylistically while telling an ambitious story of generations and the changing of America. It drags for too long at the wrong time, but the look at America is still evocative at the same time. Performances are surprisingly strong, and there are actually a couple of moments of real emotion to be had.
This is something that, if Bakshi had been a better storyteller, could have been really interesting. Unfortunately, his reach exceeded his grasp, and he couldn’t make it quite work. This film is probably looked at best as a survey of American music over the course of about 70 years, but there’s still an attempt at story to be dealt with.
3 thoughts on “American Pop”
I have a lot of problems with American Pop.
First and foremost, I don’t like most of the characters. None of them are heroic, few of them are interesting, and some of them are flat out dumbasses. And character is important to me, I need characters I can enjoy for me to enjoy a movie. Bad characters, like say everyone who’s not Paul Rudd in the Ant Man series, utterly kill my interest in a story and it may make me hate the movie. So be with American Pop.
Zalmie is the most likable? But even he falls in love with a…stripper (projection much, Bakshi?) and gets involved with the mob. And that kills my interest in Zalmie.
Then there’s Benny who IS talented and I respect that. But he’s also a dumbass. Not for volunteering to fight, he had me there. I can admire being willing to fight. But when he does get into the war, he’s an idiot. And he gets killed because he’s fucking around with a piano in a war zone. It’s a moving scene, actually….but it’s not what’s advertised on the tin: American Pop.
And Tony….I hate….I HATE Tony. I hate every second of his existence.
Pete is the most stylish and it HERE, at the end of the fucking movie, where I finally get interested. Because the story of Pete is the only one that works. This is a kid literally born into drug culture, he’s a ‘candy man’ and though he looks cool…he’s really a feral animal. But…he IS stylish and cool. I’ll give him that. But I won’t give him ‘Night Moves’ by Bob Seeger, one of my favorite films. That song is NOT Pete’s song, it’s not part of Pete’s world and him playing it for the band got me pissed off again. And then the ending of him sorta covering various pop songs…it felt lame. It felt like karaoke, not rock and roll.
Eh. EH. The story of sex, drugs and rock and roll has no glamor here. Maybe it shouldn’t have any glamor, but I will watch ‘Almost Famous’ ten times before I’ll even think about American Pop once again.
It’s a story more in line with, I guess, social realism rather than Bakshi normal surrealistic and satirical take, and I think my limited appreciation of the story comes from its handling of that. It’s when drugs are introduced, first with general waste of space Tony and then in more explicitly surrealistic terms with Pete. If Tony’s story had been much reduced (cut in half, at least), and that time given to Pete, I think we might have had something more interesting to chew on because Pete, in his limited exposure, is a more interesting and proactive character than Tony who is just generally a screwup and loafing drug addict. Tony is also pretty obviously the Bakshi self-insert into the story while Pete might have been Bakshi’s ideal, the cool guy who could navigate the drug world and the art world with aplomb.
But really, I do quite like the first half before Tony grows up and takes center stage. It’s an immigrant story that feels surprisingly real and grounded, with dreams dashed by reality while carrying on into the next generation in some form.
It’s certainly better than Hey Good Lookin’, at least.