Archive for American Pop

The Monday Intertitle: Tin Pan Alley Meets Termite Terrace

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2013 by dcairns


I had kind of assumed for years that Ralph Bakshi was strictly an anti-talent. I saw his LORD OF THE RINGS when it came out, and though I was a kid then and maybe didn’t appraise it with the devastating acuity I could obviously bring to bear on it nowadays, I felt even then that his rotoscoping (that technique whereby animators trace the movements of live action originals) didn’t work — rather than using it to reproduce tricky moves and dimensional stuff like horses which are a swine to draw in motion, he was using it for everything, so that you lost the expressiveness of actors and never gained the (different) expressiveness of cartoons. Also, I thought it was a con to charge the audience full price for half a movie. If you’d told me Peter Jackson would become a megastar director charging full price for a third of a movie, I wouldn’t have credited it.

And then I saw COOL WORLD, which seemed like a really dreadful thing. There are only a few movies that really feel like they were made by people on drugs — Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS is one — but they are uniquely awful.


But AMERICAN POP (1981) is actually pretty enjoyable. An ambitious narrative, charting the evolution of popular music in America via a generational tale. Excellent voice work (Vincent Schiavelli and Lisa Jane Persky were the only names I recognised in the cast). Stylish backgrounds. Bakshi’s tendency to mix stock footage in with the animation worked better here, due to the historical backdrop, than it did in, say, WIZARDS (which I’d forgotten about until this second. Yeah, that one’s horrible too). The multi-media mix is still distressingly random — even the titles, a scrapbook of mostly beautiful drawings, is poorly edited, with long pauses between some titles, others that bleed across from one shot to another — a messy job. And Bakshi has really patchy taste. The opening is a pogrom in Russia presented with intertitles and a Jewish liturgical soundtrack and it’s pretty epic, until a rabbi butchered by cossacks expires with a grunted “Oy!” I mean, OK, this is a cartoon, but please decide on your tone. And don’t pick THAT tone.


As with other Bakshi films, largesse is alternated with economy, which means the selections from the Great American Songbook are generous and the animation sometimes limited, but Bakshi at least compensates for still crowd scenes by lavishing detail on every figure. The colour schemes are both rich and nuanced, which is unusual to say the least in animated features, and the vignette-based storyline (less narrative than pageant) keeps the images refreshing themselves at regular intervals.

The rotoscoping (the mo-cap of its day) is still a problem, so that what were no doubt fine live action perfs are sicklied o’er with the pale cast of poster paint. Any time the figures try to act with their faces, it’s a disaster, as the poor animators are still trying to trace actors’ movements instead of doing some actual cartooning. And I swear I recognise some of these shots from other movies. Isn’t this THE CONFORMIST? Bakshi is potentially leaving himself open to lawsuits here.


But as an unusual, pacey musical history in drawn form, it’s kind of striking, like watching a roll of paint-smeared player piano music unspool all over a scrapbook of Old New York. And it’s kind of incredible to think of the movie even existing — like somebody signed off on the concept before pausing to reflect that a chronological structure means you’re going to have various versions of Sweet Georgia Brown for an hour before there’s anything the kids recognise…

In fact, the film gets worse as it goes on, though Ronni Kern’s screenplay throws up a few neat scenes, battling and embracing every cliché about the music biz as it goes, occasionally capturing the electrified snapshot quality of a Warners pre-code, condensing and energizing a whole social scene into a miniature blackout sketch.