American Pop focuses on a Jewish family that first comes toAmericafromRussiain the 1920s. When their youngest member becomes involved in the budding jazz scene, it begins an inherent involvement with music that spans four generations. Zalmie had dreams of being a star, but they were dashed after an accident. Benny, while extremely talented, is uninterested in the legacy that his father pressures him to carry on. His son Tony is equally talented but much more driven, but the business proves too much for him as he spirals. It’s then up to his adoptive son Pete to tie things up again. Along the way we see their story parallel that ofAmerica’s turbulent and rapidly evolving history, and how the music involved was crucial to their changes, just like how they really were to ours.
If you follow my other article series, Left of the Dial, then you’ll know that I’m a big music buff. So being an audio/cinephile, whenever a movie involves music in some shape or form, naturally my interest is piqued. There have been a lot of great music movies like Almost Famous, Once, The Wall, Spinal Tap etc., and some that were not so great but still had a good soundtrack to back it up. For example, say whatever you want about the convoluted mess that was Sucker Punch, but you’d have to be a fool to deny that the soundtrack to that movie kicked copious amounts of ass. The soundtrack to American Pop is basically the soundtrack to America. Whenever you think of certain eras of American history during the 20th century, specific types of music are eventually going to come up. It’s hard to think of the 1930s without hearing some jazz or to think of the 60s without hearing some rock n’ roll. Since this movie is the chronology of this correspondence, the music changes as the time changes. The beginning of the movie is in the 1920s, so naturally we are treated to some cabaret and speakeasies, when the 40s roll in, we get jazz and soul, and when the 60’s come about, we’re presented with rock n’ roll during its heyday. And all the great artists who shaped these movements are all present: George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, Herbie Hancock, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, The Sex Pistols, Bob Seger, the works.
The story itself is very intriguing, as it follows four generations of musicians and the different struggles they had to face which were given for their respective eras. It’s another one of those tales that reflects both the bright and dark sides of the American Dream, as the four protagonists experience the massive highs and crushing lows of their profession. For example, when Zalmie’s hopes are cut short after his voice gets damaged, he pressures his son Benny to live the life he could never have, and looks to alternative methods to make money (which ultimately succeed). But when Benny sees first hand the dangers of what his father’s doing, he wants no part of it, while still keeping his passion for music, compulsively playing the piano whenever there’s one nearby. When this becomes his downfall, Tony picks up the mantle and becomes the success his forefathers couldn’t be, but it also leaves him desperate to fill the void in his life, a downfall that has destroyed a lot of great talents from that era.
While it does cover all the essentials of American music, it just sort of stops at one point. The answer to why is pretty obvious, because the movie was made in 1981 and there was nowhere further to go at that point. So new wave is only seen in its developing stage, metal isn’t looked at at all, and grunge didn’t even exist then. Unfortunately this does make the movie seem dated to some, but hey, it’s not like Bakshi had a crystal ball or anything. But watching it 30 years afterward does give the viewer a little foresight and could accurately predict what happens after the credits roll and Freebird starts playing.
American Pop is my favorite Bakshi movie so far. The story is his most cohesive to date, the soundtrack is absolutely awesome, and I know I didn’t touch on it that much, but the animation is very detailed and lifelike, especially since the whole thing was done with rotoscope. Each of the four stories will have you rooting for the main character at some point or another, even if they screw it all up somewhere along the line. If you’re a music lover or an American history enthusiast, then this movie is a testament to just how vital of a role that the music played in our society and shaped the country as we know it.
I give American Pop an 8/10.