I’ll say this up front; I love this movie as much as I love pizza. And I freaking love pizza. AMERICAN POP is simply one of those movies I cannot be objective about.
I first saw AP on HBO in perpetual showings, and from the first viewing I was hooked. AP tells the story of four generations of Russian-Jewish immigrants and how each lived and died to the pop music of their time. From the montage of still drawings over the credits that start the movie, to the very last frame, AP is filled with some brilliant imagery. Ralph Bakshi clearly improved upon the rotoscoping techniques from his LORD OF THE RINGS, as even upon a very recent viewing (say three hours ago), it holds up very well. There is some computer animation towards the end which doesn’t work nearly as well however: fortunately, it’s brief and over before it detracts from what came before.
As I watched AP again for the first time in at least 20 years, I was immediately drawn into the story of this family and its decades long saga. What begins in the burlesque joints of the early twentieth century (including a silent scene of seduction which really shouldn’t work, but does), to the finale of the open air stadium concert, Bakshi has created a living, breathing testament to not only our immigrant roots but to the music that defined us as a nation. Certainly much can be made, and has been, about the lack of African American musicians and the important role they played in shaping what we hear today: yet, I think it’s more that these characters didn’t acknowledge their importance than Bakshi made a conscious decision to gloss over them. This is a movie first and foremost about the characters and their journeys through music, than it is about the birth and life of music. There are snippets of black musicians scattered throughout the film, and aside from a one minute or so bit of Jimi Hendrix, none are very prominent. Instead, they’re relegated to the background and back up musicians. Again, this isn’t supposed to be a documentary about music, it’s a fable of immigrants who make their claim in the new world with music.
Is it a perfect film? No. Some scenes come across as overwrought, and a bit cheesy. Others get things wrong (in one scene a German soldier fires a semi-automatic rifle as if it were a machine gun). AP is more than the sum of its parts however. For every misfire, there are scenes that are beautifully told (the dialogue in a corn field when one character falls head over heels in love is pure magic, regardless of the medium). The animation and voice overs are a joy to behold and a treat for the eyes. AMERICAN POP is every bit as beautiful to look at is it is to listen to. It still is one of my favorite soundtracks of any movie I’ve seen.
As I said, I’m unapologetic about my love for this movie. It strikes all the right chords, and hits most of the high notes, and like the best of any Art, some will like it , some will hate it, but few will be unmoved.