Ralph Bakshi, the animator behind Fritz the Cat, didn't invent rotoscoping, but he made it poetically epic with 1981's American Pop.
Reviewed by Henri Mazza, Fri., Sept. 6, 2002
American Pop (1981)
D: Ralph Bakshi; with D.A. Young, Ron Thompson, Mews Small, Jerry Holland, Lisa Persky, Richard Singer, Eric Taslitz, Jeffrey Lippa. Rotoscoping, the animation technique that involves drawing over filmed frames of real-world images, existed long before Waking Life made it philosophical and EarthLink made it commercial. Ralph Bakshi, the animator behind the lewd and therefore controversial Fritz the Cat, didn't invent the technique (Max Fleischer did), but he made it poetically epic with 1981's American Pop. The film partners its eerily realistic animation with documentary footage and music from throughout the 20th century to tell the story of four successive generations of young men who struggle with American life and show business. Each character's life is necessarily simplified down to its most important events, yet even though the plot spans generations, individual scenes move slowly and are nuanced by so many details that the film never feels rushed at all. Of course, it's a bit unnerving to realize that an entire life can be summed up so well in 20 minutes and that four generations can be fit into a mere 96 minutes without feeling cramped, but that's what's so beautiful about stories like this, too. We see Zalmie (Lippa) and his mother fleeing from Russia and arriving in New York where the boy ends up in vaudeville. Zalmie's son, Benny (Singer), spends his time playing the piano in nightclubs until World War II cuts his career short. Later, Benny's beatnik son, Tony (Thompson), hitchhikes his way across the country and ends up writing lyrics for a Haight-Ashbury band until self-esteem problems (and drugs, of course, cause that's the Sixties for you) set him wandering again. And so it's up to his illegitimate son Little Pete (Taslitz) to go from being New York City's most dependable coke dealer to a superstar. Occasionally, these fictional characters write lyrics we know are Bob Dylan's, and perform songs by other easily recognizable musicians as if they were their own, and those points unfortunately force you to step back and wonder what sort of parallel universe the story is unfolding in. Still, the only real complaint I've got is that the movie was produced in '81 and therefore doesn't get a chance to follow Little Pete's son to Seattle or to the Beastie Boys or to any other cornerstones of my generation's music. Oh well. Maybe Bakshi's kid will get around to American Pop 2.