In Czarist Russia, the Pogroms forced little Zalmie and his mother to flee to the United States of America as part of the immigrant population. Zalmie didn't know it then, but this would be his introduction into the world of showbusiness, as he started hanging around the vaudeville theatres and one of the promoters there hired him to hand out song sheets to the customers. As he grew up, music was in his blood, and he began a succession of generations of his family for whom this was the same. But with every high, there must be a low and it was not always plain sailing for him or his descendants...
Ambitious is the word for writer Ronni Kern and director Ralph Bakshi's American Pop, an attempt to condense the history of American music in the twentieth century into one ninety minute movie. Sometimes it succeeds, yet at other times the effect they achieve is jarring, not only for what they miss out but for what they include - and how they include it. Apparently the filmmakers' agenda was to show the Jewish influence on the popular styles, which is after all a relevant idea and not one which receives much attention, but to almost completely downplay the black and country contribution was peculiar.
Animated entirely in Bakshi's customary rotoscoped manner, the reason why such a lot was missed out was that such a lot had to be packed in, and the narrative hops around to various important events in world history, so for example Zalmie, who is trying to make it as a comedian in the 1910s, goes to Europe in the First World War and ends up shot while performing as the back end of a horse. In this way Bakshi attempts to make the big events personal, but also highlights how much violence there is in history, especially in that first half where gangsters intrude onto the patch of Zalmie, now an agent.
We continue on down the generations with Benny, a jazz piano player who signs up for World War Two much to Zalmie's dismay, rightly as it turns out when Benny finds a piano to play on after months of not being able to get near one, then is shot dead by a German soldier while trying to humour him with a tune from the Fatherland. So if he is out of the picture (as is his mother, blown up by a gangster's bomb earlier), who is left to carry on the traditions? Enter Tony, who as an underage teenager hangs out in beatnik bars and has songwriting leanings.
He ends up in California and becomes a hippy, writing songs for a band whose lead singer, the Janis Joplin-alike Frankie, he has a romantic involvement with. But here's a sticking point: Tony's songs, the ones we hear, are actually Bob Dylan songs and as Tony is never imbued with a sense of inspiration it's hard to credit him with penning "Don't Think Twice It's All Right" or whatever. Then we have to accept that Frankie's band would have Jimi Hendrix opening for them; it's a little ridiculous. More convincing is that fact that Tony and his friends become casualties of the scene when drugs take over and ruin their lives, fatally for some. True to the title, it's all American music featured until punk hits and we hear the unmistakably British "Pretty Vacant", albeit in a bad cover version, which is par for the course in this film. As we never feel close to the characters, American Pop proceeds at a distance from its subject, at once immersed in and at an academic remove from the songs and the people; unsatisfying, then, but interesting.