Movie Reviews

Movie Review: American Pop – This Ain’t No Josie and the Pussycats

Written by Ronni Kern
Directed by Ralph Bakshi

When people think of animation, they generally think of Saturday morning cartoons and Disney flicks. Adult animated movies never really took off, although the world of anime has managed to carve out its own niche among fans of the genre.

Animator Ralph Bakshi had his own cult following with his adult-oriented animated films. In the 1980’s he wove a creative tale of how the music of America – from Jazz and Swing all the way through to the music of the fifties, the acid rock culture of the sixties, through the disco era of the seventies, and on into new wave and the stadium-rock which began to dominate in the eighties.

As a teenager when American Pop first came out, it had a profound impact on me. It was brutally honest on all fronts with the culture surrounding both the music and the people of the various eras. There was blatant drug use and trafficking, casual sex, and violence among its rather adult themes. A child is abandoned to the streets in one case, while in another a young adult who has always felt out of place among suburbia abandons it for the culture of San Francisco in the 1960s.

Right from the opening, American Pop drew me in with the catchy tunes, paintings, and sketches from various parts of American culture. I could tell this film was something different than anything I’d seen before. It’s the story of one American family, and the love of music – “American” music – carried down through the generations. Some of the stories seemed to be a bit cliché, with characters who acted in a way I would expect for the time they are set, but overall it’s a story that drew me in and kept me watching.

Beginning in Russia under the oppressive rule of the Czar, a young boy, Zalmie, and his mother make their escape to New York. There he makes his way among the vaudeville theaters of the time, taken in among the other players as family. He dreams of a life as a singer and entertainer, but those dreams are dashed after he’s gasses on the battlefields of World War I.

Zalmie falls for a stripper, Bella, and together they have a son. Times are rough as the various speakeasies Zalmie haunts are ripe with violence. A marriage is arranged between his son, Benny, and his boss’ daughter. World War II comes along and Benny enlists, despite his skills as a pianist. Benny doesn’t come home, but his son, Tony, is born as another generation carries on the love of music.

Into the beatnik era of the late 1950s, this son, Tony, develops a love of the counter-culture. He finds himself in Kansas washing dishes in a diner as he travels to California. There he falls for Frankie, the female lead singer of a band. During a disastrous stop for the band in Kansas City, he befriends a boy, Little Pete, who, unknown to him, is his son from that one-night stopover years before; a son who loves music…

Throughout the story, the music of each era plays. From early incarnations of jazz and vaudeville through the ballads and songs that boosted the fighting men in World War II to the early days of rock -n- roll and finally into the punk and pop music era of the late 70s and early 1980s, there are some terrific examples of the sound of each era. Overall the soundtrack is amazing, if for nothing else for the amount of time and various genres of music it represents. There’s music here from the likes of George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Seeger, and many more.

The animation is done with static backgrounds while the figures in front participating in the story move. At times this is cut with black and white films from the era. The style is very different than the animation I am used to, particularly in this new age of computer-generated animation.

The people in it are drawn in a very different manner. I think of Ariel in The Little Mermaid and as sexy as she could have been with only those shells covering her, she never really seemed to be sexy. Here, the women radiate sex at various times, even when clothed much more than Ariel was. The streetwalkers and showgirls simply ooze sexuality, while the men seem to be the smooth-talkers people would expect would hang around these joints.

This definitely isn’t for children. Even some teenagers I would caution due to its adult themes, although I think most teens probably have a better understanding of the world around them than we give them credit for. If nothing else, some of the mature situations could spark a dialog on the various subjects.

If there’s one thing I didn’t like, some of the characters seemed to be glossed over. While a lot of time was spent on Tony and Zalmie, the character of Benny seemed to be given short shrift. The dwelling on Tony seemed to happen because so much has been made of the counter-culture of the sixties. It seemed as if writer Ronni Kern found it easy to write about this time and went into more detail and depth on it while trading off some of the time spent on the music of another generation.

I remember watching it on the big screen in 1981 with my friends, and now looking back at all those years in between and what’s gone on since then, I wonder how the next chapter would have been written.