Ralph Bakshi’s animated voyage through 20th century popular music has finally arrived on Blu-ray. While music is an integral part of the film, it’s not a musical. Instead, representative songs of various eras frame the ongoing adventures of a family descended from Russian Jewish immigrants, serving as aural set dressing to establish each time period.
The story gets under way with the arrival of the immigrant family to New York, where the young son quickly finds himself orphaned and spellbound by the allure of vaudeville. An aspiring singer, his dreams are dashed when he sustains a debilitating throat injury on tour. As the years go by, his son proves to be a talented piano player who similarly can’t seem to break through to success, ultimately ending up a soldier deployed to Europe for World War II. Next up is the soldier’s son, a restless drifter who eventually washes up in San Francisco in the ‘60s, where he spends time as a songwriter for a rising rock band before drugs take over. His son seems to be on a similar trajectory, finding notoriety as a drug seller in the music industry before leveraging his supply in exchange for his demand to play some of his own songs in the recording studio. After generations of trying and trying to find a foothold in the American music industry, the final descendant may finally hold the key to success. There’s not much sex, but the drugs and rock and roll are in high supply.
Bakshi utilizes his typical rotoscoping animation technique, drawing over live action actors to ease the production process and produce more lifelike movement. He plays it mostly straight, appropriately avoiding any psychedelic Bakshi weirdness until the characters reach the 1960s. From there on, drug culture plays a big part in the lives of the final two generations of his characters, giving him license to move the visuals in a more experimental direction. Still, he keeps his focus firmly on the story throughout, delivering a work that is probably his most satisfying from a strictly narrative aspect.
The Blu-ray is presented in 1080p hi def with DTS-HD MA 2.0 sound. Images and sound are crystal clear, with no noticeable detractors. Color maintains the original somewhat murky tones, offering little for HDR delights but remaining very true to the source. Unfortunately, fans of bonus features are out of luck, but the arrival of this film on Blu-ray is a miracle by itself.
Fans of Bakshi’s boundary-pushing ‘70s output culminating with Wizards may be surprised by the relatively conventional nature of this animated project. However, keeping in mind that American Pop was his follow-up to his big play for legitimacy with The Lord of the Rings, it serves as something of a continuation of his mainstream foray, with the final drug-fueled act foreshadowing his return to grittier material in his next two films, Hey Good Lookin’ and Fire and Ice. While the pop music is little more than background noise, Bakshi’s most American of films is a fascinating look at a master animator delivering a moving, multigenerational tale.