"American Pop" is Ralph Bakshi's best film...that's not saying much considering this man also assaulted us with "Fritz the Cat," the animated "The Lord of the Rings," "Wizards," and the really awful "Hey Good Lookin'."
The story follows four generations of a Russian immigrant family, and their cosmic involvement in their respective worlds of popular music. Jimmy is a vaudevillian who gets shot in the throat in WWI and must manage the career of his singer wife. He also gets involved with the mob thanks to prohibition. His son, Benny, is a piano genius who is killed is WWII. Benny's son is the misfit Tony, who we follow from the Beat generation to a drug induced 1970's. Tony's one night stand product, Pete, continues the drug trade, but can belt out one mean tune in the punk rock late 1970's.
Bakshi's animation still consists of tracing live action onto film as animated subjects. This makes for some really jerky scenes, although not on the headache inducing level of his earlier work. There are a few places where the work is downright interesting, like Tony's acid trip and eventual fall from a stage, and Pete's dancelike movements as he delivers his drugs to his customers.
Bakshi's biggest mistake is using well known songs in the soundtrack, and attributing them to cartoon characters. Pete writes "Night Moves." Benny comes up with "As Time Goes By" after stealing the riff from a hobo. Tony wrote "Somebody to Love." I found this angle of the film irritating. It is not like no one has ever heard of these songs, and would be fooled. It just seems as if the film makers were too lazy to come up with their own material, and the songwriters and publishing houses were too eager to sell their stuff for a quick buck. Since the entire film consists of this one family coming up with all the great songs of the last eighty years, toss any suspense out the window as to what each generation is going to accomplish.
Bakshi is also obsessed with the illegal drug culture in the final half of the film. What is this, "Panic in Needle Park"? Watching cartoon characters shooting heroin is bizarre, but pointless. I ask the same question I ask of some of Bakshi's other work, specifically "Hey Good Lookin'," why did he animate this? Why didn't he shoot this with live actors? The animation, while interesting, is completely unwarranted.
In the end, "American Pop" is as homogenized and half baked as much of the music coming out today. Then again, I'd rather watch Britney Spears cavort in low riding jeans than sit through this music mondo mockumentary again.
"American Pop" has left the building, don't bring it back next year. (* *) out of five stars.