In the 70's, 80's and 90's, perhaps no American animator was as important and influential as Ralph Bakshi. He's also long been something of a controversial figure, especially among other artists. Bakshi's approach to animation has always been to hit the frame with a bizarre mix of different styles, juxtaposing the realistic with the nightmarish in what basically amounts to a feature-length montage. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. One of Ralph Bakshi's most successful productions was his 1981 labor of love, American Pop. It came on the heels of the now widely-loved Lord of the Rings cartoon that was singularly iconic until Peter Jackson gave the series the live-action treatment. Bakshi used a lot of rotoscoping in Lord of the Rings, but given the necessity of creating dragons and such the technique didn't get as much of a workout until American Pop and its considerably more human-centered story.
American Pop is the tale of four generations of musicians and their meandering path through the landscape of 20th century American culture. Beginning with Zalmie, whose family came to New York in the early 1900's from czarist Russia where they were persecuted for their Jewish heritage. A sweatshop fire leaves Zalmie orphaned, a theme that repeats itself in one way or another for the rest of the film. Taken in by some desperate vaudevillians with mob connections, Zalmie begins his dual careers in show business and bootlegging.
On the one hand, American Pop is full of these kinds of broad narrative strokes. Every character is more an archetype than a unique creation, but that's kind of the point. All of Ralph Bakshi's original work is clearly allegorical, depending on his audience's shared cultural associations to do a lot of the heavy lifting. In the case of American Pop, this method is actually fitting, given that the whole conception of popular culture is almost entirely based on how people remember whole eras by chunking together large swathes of stereotype.
So, when Zalmie's son Benny turns into a suave piano player with a perpetual cigarette in his mouth, it's not all that problematic for the movie's overall atmosphere. Nor is it a big deal that Benny's son Tony serves as a beatnik-shaped cautionary tale about how drug culture often consumes artists whole. The only place where Bakshi's blunt symbolism falters is when we reach Pete, the last central character and the only one to really achieve the pure stardom that's been in his blood since the Old Country.
Ralph Bakshi was already in his mid-40's when he wrote American Pop and though he was definitely an edgy guy for his time, he proved that pop culture really is a young man's game by making Pete a confused jumble of musical archetypes that were already dated by 1981. If Pete was really a conglomeration of everything hip and important in the music of his time, he would have been an artsy goth punk with one hand on a Moog and the other setting fire to a copy of Peter Frampton Comes Alive!, not a coke-slinging Thin White Duke who plays blues rock.
It's rather poetic, actually, that Bakshi's idea of new pop culture falls apart in the film's final moments. American Pop is about how each generation pursues big ideas that the previous one just can't quite understand. For Bakshi, the once incredibly hip cartoonist, the 1980's would prove to be a time when he couldn't really get his projects off the ground. Instead, he provided a starting platform for the likes of John Kricfalusi and Peter Chung, a couple of animators who would come to be two of the most pervasive talents of the 1990's.
A flawed but one-of-a-kind film, Ralph Bakshi's American Pop is a fine example of how animation can be used to enhance serious narratives and even lend depth to broad storytelling concepts. It's not Bakshi's best in any sense, but it is certainly one of his most memorable.