“American Pop” is the animated story of a very talented and troubled family starting with 19th century Russia and moving through several generations of musicians. 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.
American Pop is a 1981 American adult animated musical drama film starring Ron Thompson and produced and directed by Ralph Bakshi. It was the fourth animated feature film to be presented in Dolby sound. The film tells the story of four generations of a Russian Jewish immigrant family of musicians whose careers parallel the history of American popular music in the 20th century.
The majority of the film’s animation was completed through rotoscoping, a process in which live actors are filmed and the subsequent footage is used for animators to draw over. However, the film also uses a variety of other mixed media including water colors, computer graphics, live-action shots, and archival footage.
About the Story
In Imperial Russia during the late 1890s, a rabbi’s wife and her young son Zalmie escape to America while the rabbi is killed by the Cossacks. Shortly after their arrival in New York City, Zalmie is recruited by Louie, a performer at a burlesque house, to hand out chorus slips. As Zalmie grows into adolescence, he spends more time with Louie backstage at burlesque shows.
When Zalmie’s mother dies in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he begins working with Louie full-time at a small theatre. Though Zalmie aspires to be a singer, he is beginning to enter puberty and his changing voice becomes a significant obstacle. When World War I strikes, Zalmie travels the globe performing for the troops as the bottom half of a pantomime horse and sustains a wound to his throat, which ends his singing career.
When Zalmie returns to New York, he briefly continues performing as a clown, and falls in love with a stripper named Bella, vowing to make her a famous singer and getting involved with mobsters in order to do so. After Zalmie impregnates her, he uses money from mob boss Nicky Palumbo to pay for their wedding. Bella achieves modest success, but she is killed after opening a package containing a bomb intended for Zalmie.
Their son, Benny, who is already an introverted child, focuses all of his efforts into becoming a talented jazz pianist. Benny marries Palumbo’s daughter at Zalmie’s request and enlists to fight in World War II seeking redemption for his family, despite pleas from his father. Benny is killed in Nazi Germany when he stops to play on an abandoned piano and is caught off-guard by a Nazi soldier; Benny begins to play Lili Marleen and the Nazi closes his eyes in bliss, but when the song ends, the Nazi pauses only to thank Benny before riddling him and the piano with gunfire. Benny’s wife and son, named Tony, now live in a suburban Long Island town, and they watch as Zalmie testifies against Palumbo on television, calling him a rat.
A teenage Tony steals his stepfather’s car and drives across the country for four weeks, ending up in Kansas, where he spends the day washing dishes at a diner and spends the night with a waitress. In California, Tony takes another job dishwashing, but soon grows tired of it and quits. A six-piece rock group invites him to write songs for them after hearing him playing harmonica under their doorstep. The band becomes successful but slowly starts to decompose because of the heroin addictions of female lead singer Frankie Heart and Tony himself.
Tony becomes addicted to drugs after being hospitalized from falling off a stage while on acid at one of Frankie’s shows. Frankie and the band’s drummer, Johnny Webb marry, but divorce after two weeks, and Frankie begins an affair with Tony. In Kansas, the band is set to perform after Jimi Hendrix, but Frankie overdoses backstage, and Tony meets a blonde, blue-eyed boy, Little Pete, whom Tony realizes is his son, conceived the night he spent with the waitress.
American Pop (1981)
Directed by: Ralph Bakshi
Starring: Mews Small, Ron Thompson, Jerry Holland, Lisa Jane Persky. Jeffrey Lippa. Roz Kelly, Frank DeKova, Rick Singer, Elsa Raven
Screenplay by: Ronni Kern
Film Editing by: David Ramirez
Animation Department: Marcia Adams, Craig Armstrong, Brenda Banks
Music by: Lee Holdridge
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures
Release Date: February 13, 1981