While writer/director Ralph Bakshi ultimately fails with his fascinating 1981 animated drama AMERICAN POP, no one can accuse him of a lack of ambition. Or his attempts to make a film free of his usual grotesque outlook on life. Compared to FRITZ THE CAT and HEAVY TRAFFIC, and some others, AMERICAN POP is a restrained, serious, and mature piece. Still adult themed, but much easier to watch and just as thought provoking.
The film spans over eighty years. Bakshi's saga tracks several generations of a Russian Jewish family, some of whose members harbor musical talents. AMERICAN POP opens in late 1890s Russia, before a rabbi's wife and young son Zalmie escape the Cossacks and flee to New York City. Zalmie grows up in the world of burlesque later becomes a singer and then a clown. He suffers injuries during WWI and gets mixed up with mobsters, a mistake that will bring tragedy and frustration for the rest of his days.
Zalmie has a son named Benny who likes to play the piano, but he too suffers during wartime, WWII, paying with his life as he plays "Lili Marleen" on a piano in Nazi Germany. Tony is Benny's son, who in the '60s travels cross country to chase his dream of being a rock star. He meets a group led by a self-destructive female singer (ala Janis Joplin) and for a time plays with and writes songs for them. Heroin nearly destroys them all. Backstage before a show one night, Tony meets a young boy named Pete, eventually realizing he is his own son - the product of a long ago one night stand.
But Tony doesn't learn from his mistakes, becoming in the '70s a dealer in NYC with Pete, teaching the kid his trade before disappearing. Pete, like his many progenitors, exhibits a musical bent, with a fancy for writing songs and playing the guitar. While waiting for his big break, he becomes a highly successful supplier of narcotics, mainly to musicians. In a curious moment, while bopping down the street, Pete stops to nod at an Hassidic Jew as he chants over his Torah. A nod to his own heritage? To Bakshi's?
I've summarized many of the events in AMERICAN POP not to spoil the plot, but to demonstrate the breadth of the project. This was a huge, personal project for Ralph Bakshi. I have an attraction to the epic narrative, one that leapfrogs from event to event in history, usually against the backdrop of true life occurrences. Bakshi spends just enough time with each character to intrigue us. Some we get to know fairly well, others are like faint glimmers. I found myself wondering about them, all the events we don't see long after a time period is covered. Any episode could've been expanded and stretched to feature length on its own. The film gives more screen time to the late '50s onward, right up to the punk/New Wave era and the climactic concert, when Pete performs, no, not punk rock but a medley of covers of old songs (an homage to the past?), with a bit of Heart thrown in.
The songs used in the film are well known, many of them standards. Instead of new material, Bakshi uses the familiar tunes (for the screenplay it is explained that the characters wrote them) to recount history, the zeitgeist. All the mores and attitudes of the ages, many the same over time. But with each generation comes a greater sense of entitlement, wanting more for less. Characters in the earlier decades acknowledge loyalty and sacrifice, while the later ones reject the work ethic and turn to intoxicants to fuel their creativity.
It sounds like moralizing, like some grumpy voice from the "greatest generation" kvetching about contemporary youth. But Bakshi is no conservative hack, quite the opposite. His quill is still sharp, as it was in his earlier stingers, especially COONSKIN. This time the tone is more wistful and melancholy. For all of the energy of the final scenes, a real heaviness pervades. That all that came before did indeed happen, but now gone forever. Did they all suffer for art, just so that their descendent could finally realize The Dream? AMERICAN POP gives us a montage of the earlier scenes with his ancestors as Pete wows an arena crowd. Did Bakshi mean for it to feel so empty and depressing?