American Pop is the animated story of a Russian Jewish immigrant family of musicians whose careers parallel the history of American popular music in the 20th century, starting in 19th century Russia and moving through four generations.
The story begins in Russia, where young Zalmie’s father is killed for defending the torah against blazing Cossacks. The sequence is meant to recall Eisenstein, but not even Eisenstein could survive the maudlin dramaturgy of such title cards as “Oy! Oy! Oy!”
When Zalmie and his mama emigrate to New York City, the look echoes the Ash Can School, but the lachrymose tone recalls Ross Hunter.
We actually hear “There are smiles that make us happy” as Zalmie hovers over his mother’s dead body at the site of the Triangle Fire.
Director Ralph Bakshi has been acclaimed for trailblazing new animation techniques, but his work suspiciously resembles rotoscoping, a well-known process by which a live-action film is used as the basis for animation.
What’s most distinctive about American Pop, however, is its vulgarity. Zalmie becomes a clown in a burlesque show and is deflowered by a stripper with a heart of platinum. She sticks a finger in her mouth as he pulls off his funny pants.
When Zalmie’s Gershwin-like son, Benny, goes overseas in World War II, he finds a piano in an abandoned cafe and begins to play, unaware of the Nazi soldier lurking behind him. When their eyes meet, Benny switches his tune to Lili Marlene; the German sobs but then, after the song is over, shoots Benny in cold blood.
The film covers American popular music from the pre-jazz age through rhythm and blues, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, drug-laden psychedelia, and punk rock, finally ending with the onset of New Wave in the early 1980s.
As a spot check of pop culture, the film is ludicrous: Benny’s son, Tony, is in Greenwich Village when Allen Ginsberg reads Howl! – then through some time/space warp, he manages to be in Haight-Ashbury for the formation of the Jefferson Airplane.
Tony, who has the most time onscreen, is, unfortunately, the most irritating example of Bakshi’s hybrid approach. His face is a pug version of the young Brando, but he gestures like James Dean’s Jett Rink in Giant. Actor Ron Thompson’s voice sounds in turns like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, only to end up mimicking Robert Blake.
Tony’s sullen son, Pete, finally becomes the family’s rock superstar; we’re meant to think that his fame has been forged from his family’s history of misfortune and corruption (his great-grandfather colluded with the mob, resulting in his great-grandmother’s death; his grandfather married a mobster’s daughter; his own father got strung out on drugs).
Although all of the characters are fictional, many were partially inspired by real people. The character of Frankie, for instance, was based on Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane) and Janis Joplin (of Big Brother and the Holding Company).
Lisa Jane Persky
Frank De Kova
Little Benny (voice)
Cari Anne Warder