Today I watched Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981)
American Pop tells a generational story of a family of Russian Jewish immigrants beginning with Zalmie who flees Czarist Russia with his mother as a child. Zalmie grows up working odd jobs in the burlesque scene and then the speakeasies during the prohibition. Originally Zalmie had wanted to be a singer, but he is hit by a stray bullet in the throat while entertaining troops during WWI. He inevitably gets caught up in bootlegging, his musical dream being passed on to his beautifully voiced wife. Things don’t go well with his bootlegging business though and the effects are felt on his son Benny. Benny plays piano in the jazz clubs but never escapes the violence of his upbringing as he enlists and dies on the fields of WWII. This deeply affects his only son Tony, who becomes a poet. Tony steals his family car and sets out across America, becoming a popular songwriter but also running straight into the darker corners of the drug culture.
These stories are told through the powerful popular music of the times, weaving the essential American immigrant story and it’s follow ups with sounds meant to evoke the extreme changes taking place. The film is only partially about it’s characters, the real story is the story of American at the turn of the last century and the changes it went through following. It get’s back to Bakshi’s usual collage style, taking music from multiple eras and imagery and techniques equally as varied. There are period photographs and archival footage of wars and migrations and of course his trademark Rotoscoping. Meanwhile the soundtrack goes from Gershwin to Pat Benatar, Sam Cooke to Jefferson Airplane, united by a defining national identity.
I think American Pop does a marvelous job at presenting a narrative that is both personal and broadly epic, the story of a nation as told through the experiences of a single familial line. The music is great, of course, and Bakshi’s ability to string together multiple styles allows him to come at each piece with perfectly chosen imagery. The film is filled with deep human tragedy but also the soaring heights of ecstatic experience that make us want to see tomorrow. In closing, this film is heart personified, a warts and all portrait of last century’s America that celebrates one thing above all, the human soul and it’s creativity. 5/5