American Pop (1981) Movie Review

American PopBy: Oberst Von Berauscht & Bill Leon (A Toast) –

-Oberst: The lives and struggles of an American music family are told over the course of four generations, spanning from their earliest experiences as Russian Immigrants all the way to the 1970s.  Young Zalmie Belinksy is orphaned at a young age and informally adopted by Burlesque performer Louis, with whom he travels all over the world.  Zalmie begets Benny, who becomes a talented Jazz pianist, eventually giving birth to a son named Tony, who grows up to write songs for a major 60s rock band, and whose son Pete follows the family legacy to be come a rock singer/songwriter.

-Bill L: American Pop is the culmination of Ralph Bakshi’s obsessions with music and how it can be used unconventionally to set a tone or even further a story. To this day, he always says “Music is everything.” With the exception of Coonskin, I don’t think any single Bakshi film conjurs up or cycles through as much raw and powerful emotion as this one does.

A Toast

-Oberst: This cross-generational drama plays itself out with a fearlessly independent spirit, like the best films of the New Hollywood movement.  Utilizing rotoscope techniques which add a kind of otherwordly aspect to the animation style, American Pop flies off the screen with gorgeously rendered detail.  The animation style really brings the history and art of American Popular music to life.

Rotoscope this Bakshi!

-Bill L: Bakshi has always tried to break ground with his animation but never before had he told a story that was truly grounded in reality. Whereas before he had portrayed characters in whom you could see flashes of realism, American Pop‘s cast of characters feel like living, breathing people from their respective places and time periods.

-Bill L: Ron Thompson’s dual performance as both Tony and Pete in the film is dynamic, captivating, emotional, a bunch of other adjectives. He’s just fucking got it… Every single time he’s onscreen in this film, you want to know what his characters are thinking, how they’re feeling, and what they’re going to do next. Very rarely do the planets align in such a way that join character and actor in such matrimonial cinematic bliss.

See Also: Matrimonial Bliss

-Oberst: I must also credit the rest of the stellar cast. As the Jazz Pianist Benny, Rick Singer brings a reserved and yet conscientious tone that stands in contrast with his gangster father Zalmie. As Zalmie’s adopted business partner/friend Louie, Jerry Holland provides a perfect comedic foil. As the drug addicted and tragic Frankie, Mews Small is simply heart wrenching.

-Oberst: This film could easily have come from the mind of Martin Scorsese, as it features the director’s hallmarks of a near constant rolling score of popular music, an ear for streetwise dialogue, and visual flair enhancing the drama.  This is no heartwarming Disneyfied vision of rock history.  Director Ralph Bakshi pulls no punches, pointing out the many ways in which mental imbalance and drug addiction seem to go hand-in-hand with fame.

-Bill L: The idea of four baton passing lead characters is a big gamble. It does apply perfectly to the intended effect of going over many decades of culture and music history, but giving each character enough screentime to be memorable and captivating is a challenge. Of all the leads in the film, Benny gets the biggest shaft, barely having more than ten minutes to do anything in the story (although I love his death scene). Other than Benny, each of the leads gets ample enough screentime to leave a hell of an impression on you.

-Bill L: Almost every single time a song is driving a sequence in the film, it runs on all cylinders. Whether it’s Tony freaking out to “Somebody to Love,” Pete strutting around the city moving coke to “Hell is for Children,” “Night Moves” with that slick piano intro, or the laser light extravaganza of the finale medley, every single sequence is fun, engaging, and at times masterful. This film completely succeeds in fusing animation, drama, story-telling, and music in innovative and unexpected ways.

Not Jefferson Airplane is my favorite band!
“Not Jefferson Airplane” is my favorite band!

-Oberst: A film exploring American Popular music couldn’t be complete without a solid soundtrack, and this film is no exception to the rule.  From the vaudeville stage to dingy Jazz clubs, to rock and roll stadium shows, the music of American Pop is a cultural Greek chorus; commenting on the changing values of each generation, setting the perfect stage for each time period.


-Bill L: American Pop is one of the best examples of using the medium of film, combined with animation, to great artistic effect.


Drinking Game

Take a Drink: for stock footage

Take a Drink: for each song you recognize

Take a Drink: for each Decade that passes

Drink a Shot: for each onscreen death

About Oberst von Berauscht

Oberst Von Berauscht once retained the services of a Gypsy to imbue in him the ability to accurately describe the artistic qualities of a film up to seven decimal points. To maintain this unique skill, he must feast on the blood of a virgin every Harvest Moon, or failing that (and he usually does), he can also make a dog do that thing they do where they twist their heads slightly (you know, when they're confused about something) at least a few times a week. I've gotten way off track here... The point is, Oberst is one of the website's founders, so... yeah

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