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Review: The Most Rock n’ Roll Movie You’ve Never Seen…

todayAugust 22, 2023


If I said “a film has it all,” what would you think that entails? Writing, acting, cinematography, directing, producing, soundtrack…? The list infinitely goes on. I believe Ralph Bakshi’s 1981 animated trek across musical history has it all.

Ralph Bakshi in 1981 on the “American Pop” press tour. © The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ralph Bakshi, a trailblazing film director and animator, emerged as a creative force in the animation industry during the late 1960s. His bold and unorthodox approach to film-making challenged conventional norms, pushing the boundaries of the previously “childish” medium. In 1981, he unveiled American Pop, a captivating and visually stunning exploration of American history through generations of a family closely intertwined with music.

© 1980 Barclay’s Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited, Sony Pictures Entertainment

A unique blend of style, American Pop follows the struggles, triumphs, and tragedies of the Belinski family, Russian-Jewish immigrants, as they navigate the tumultuous American 20th century, from vaudeville to rock ‘n’ roll and everything in-between. The film not only offers a mesmerizing exploration of American popular culture but paints it on a deep canvas of universal themes such as family, legacy, and the pursuit of dreams. With powerful storytelling and its evocative soundtrack (Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Seger, The Mamas & The Papas…) this extraordinary cinematic experience is a must-watch for anyone seeking an artistic and moving journey through the tapestry of American life.

…but if it’s so great, how have you never heard of it? Well, American Pop very rarely visited home media due to intense licensing issues with the 50+ songs the film features. After being offered the opportunity to swap out some of the tracks, Bakshi decided to hold onto his artistic integrity and watch as the film faded into the abyss of forgotten cinema. “I didn’t know what […] video was [in the early 1980s],” Bakshi said of home media’s importance.

Actor Ron Thompson in 2018. © Neptune’s Trident

In American Pop, there is no real star as the story moves across time, but the man who steals the show is Ron Thompson, who plays both Tony and Tony’s son, Little Pete, in the then-modern day setting of  new wave and post-punk. “Columbia Pictures played it all down,” Thompson said, “And that’s the way it was. My heart was broken at the time. Six months after the movie was out it became very apparent to me that the movie didn’t make it […].” When interviewed by PopMatters, Thompson recalled, “When the movie came out, they promoted all the music. The Jimi Hendrix, the Janis Joplin. It seemed like it was a two-hour MTV video the way it was advertised in the trailers. So all these kids came to see it and they were disappointed! They didn’t want to see no […] story about the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s. The people who would have liked the movie didn’t go see it because they thought it was just a bunch of loud music and MTV stuff.”

© 1980 Barclay’s Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Upon my first viewing, I found American Pop to be an exceptional masterpiece in the realm of animation. It continuously builds momentum and the narrative unfolds with a documentary-like realism, offering a profound reflection on American life. A fair assessment would not compare it to conventional Disney film, as American Pop possesses substance beyond mere aesthetics.

Drawing from a kaleidoscope of influences, it defies easy categorization. I described it to close friends as Elvis (2022) meets Everything Everywhere All At Once, but that’s not a fair description. it’s far more than that. It captures shades of cinematic greatness like The Godfather, the charm of your favorite slapstick comedy, and a tapestry of genres seamlessly woven into its narrative.

In my opinion, this film can confidently compete with any other classic animated film. American Pop stands as an awe-inspiring, captivating, and one-of-a-kind cinematic masterpiece. It may very well be among the most audacious and adventurous animated works ever brought to life. While it may not attain absolute perfection, the final outcome remains truly remarkable, surpassing contemporary animation benchmarks.

© 1980 Barclay’s Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited, Sony Pictures Entertainment

American Pop comes to Blu-Ray for the very first time today, August 22nd. It can be pre-ordered from your favorite physical media store.

Final Review: ★★★★★/5

Written by: Jace