Right at the core of American Pop’s problems is its uneven writing. It’s premise is weak – all of twentieth century America shown through a family of musicians in 96 minutes, and all done through animation – but writer Ronni Kern gives up on it halfway through the movie. The first half of the movie covers 1900-1950, roughly, in a fleeting, disconnected manner. Then, settling into the 60s and 70s, periods from the Kern and director Ralph Bakshi’s own lifetime, the film begins to lag. The entire second half is dedicated to drugged-out, insipidly surreal Rock and Roll hallucinations; in those twenty years, history seems to have stopped, save for a brief interlude of a few bombs dropping in Vietnam.
But there are deeper problems with the film, as well, especially it’s attempted portrayal of history. Both World Wars and Vietnam are handled in a similar manner; archival footage is crosscut with animated sequences of dancing and music. This dialectic is immature in design, and falsely implicational in meaning. It is no secret that Europe and Asia was ravaged throughout the twentieth century through wars that America was involved in. More than just mere involvement, though, America is to blame for many atrocities. (Hiroshima and Nakasaki are never mentioned in American Pop, by the way.) If the dialectic went no further than this, it could be written off as sophomoric. But what it really does is navigate around America’s own history book and replace it with shallow images of more global conflicts. The Atom Bomb, the Great Depression, Civil Rights, Women’s Suffrage – the list goes on – none of them were even hinted at in the film.
Essentially, Kern and Bakshi have reduced everything to the stereotype or the cliché. When one character wanders around 1970’s Harlem looking for drugs, the only scenery is a couple Superfly’d dealers in red fur. The ghetto doesn’t exist, and neither does poverty or racism. Actually, yes they do, but only as regards White Russians. The stars of the film fled a pogrom in Russia, only to come to America impoverished and without work. They also lead jazz bands backed by black musicians. The more proper title for this film would be America Russian Style.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.