Every day Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a movie either so bad it’s good or just downright terrible. Today: Night moves!
The night air is suffocating. Benny has just spent the last few months of his life living in foxholes and encampments, struggling to survive the war. He’s given up everything to fight for his country: his family, his freedom and his music.
Before Benny signed up to fight the Nazis, his life revolved around the piano. Music was his everything. Now, searching through the rubble of Germany, Benny becomes visibly happy to spot a piano sitting there amongst the carnage.
He sets down his rifle, seats himself in front of the piano and begins to play a haunting melody that stands out in sharp contrast against the horrors of World War II that surround him. So engrossed in his piano playing is Benny that he does not notice the German solder approaching from behind. The Nazi lifts up his rifle, points it at Benny, but then pauses.
He sways to the music, lost in his own memories of a better life. Benny finishes his tune and turns, spotting the solder behind him. Before he can lift his gun or utter a final goodbye, he is shot by the German, leaving him slumped over the piano in his death. The German utters a guttural “Danke” before turning and walking away.
American Pop is about the music. Telling the story of four generations of Russian-Americans, the film is a living-breathing treatise on music’s influence on the American psyche. It’s also a cartoon.
Directed by the animation innovator Ralph Bakshi, American Pop is a rotoscoped film — meaning it was filmed with live actors before being animated over. What this translates to is an unsettling viewing experience; characters in the film are simultaneously hyper-realistic and slightly exaggerated. To watch the film is to watch a moving, talking Norman Rockwell painting — with a killer soundtrack.
Released February 13, 1981, American Pop is a classically trained epic in every sense of the word. Zalmie, Benny, Tony and Pete wanted to be stars. Zalmie’s career had been cut down prematurely, leaving him to live vicariously through the life of his son Benny. We know what happened to Benny. Tony was a gifted lyricist, but was swept up in the tribulations of the sixties. It was up to Pete to bring four generations of his family’s hopes and dreams to fruition.
Beginning in Czarist Russia and ending with the beginning of the eighties, American Pop travels the full course of American music; utilizing jazz, folk, psychedelic, punk and, of course, rock and roll.
The film uses the music of such great American artists as Bob Dylan, Heart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Lou Reed, Bob Seger, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Louis Prima. Using this music, American Pop sets the stage for an exploration into Americana.
From the seedy underbelly of prohibition era New York to the tranquility of the American suburbs to San Francisco in the sixties to the eventual hype and all-encompassing power of the early ‘80s music industry, American Pop is an often touching and always educational trip.
The film is quite literally a college of American culture.
Watching the film is setting one’s self up for a serious case of déjà vu. Characters and plot scenarios may seem all too familiar, but that is because American Pop is a mirrored reflection of our history as a culture. The struggles, the losses and the wins of this immigrant country are reflected in all of its glory through the use of beautifully rendered animation and, most importantly, American pop.
Robert Saucedo would sacrifice a small kitten to have American Pop released on Blu-ray. Follow him on Twitter @robsaucedo2500.