Ralph Bakshi's half-baked epic, "American Pop," which opens today at area theaters, exposes the banality of his pop mentality. The creator of "Lord of the Rings' and "Fritz the Cat" surpasses himself: "American Pop" is undeniably his sorriest spectacle yet.
Bakshi invites us to celebrate changing styles in pop music -- roughly, Eva Tanguay to Pat Benatar and Scott Joplin to Bob Seger -- in concert with a four-generation chronicle of the sordid, disaster-prone fates of four guys with rhythm in their souls, or blood, or something.
The progenitor, Zalmie, is a Russian Jewish lad, introduced in a mock-silent film prologue set in the Old Country."Progrom!" screams a title, and before you know it Zalmie has lost his devout papa to a marauding Cossack. You also know the movie is in an instant ludicrous fix when the slash of the saber is followed by the sound of the victim sighing, "Oi!"
Upon arriving in America, Zalmie soon loses his mother in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Five minutes into the movie Bakshi's epic design is so clumsily apparent that you want to clutch your head and go "Oi, oi, oi. . ." A budding vaudeville singing career is nipped when Zalmie takes a German bullet in the vocal cords during World War I. He becomes a gangster instead, and the musical tradition passes to his son Benny, a cool jazz pianist whose mother gets blown away by an exploding bag of pretzels intended for Zalmie by a rival gang.
Imperturbable Benny fails to survive World War II. He gets it from a retreating German soldier so unappreciative that he responds to Benny's soothing rendition of "Lili Marlene" by shooting the piano player. Benny leaves an orphan boy named Tony who abandons Suffocating Suburbia to frequent coffeehouses and hits the road in homage to Jack Kerouac. By the time he gets from New York to San Francisco, North Beach has been supplanted by Haight-Ashbury. Tony catches on as a drug dealer and then songwriter with a self-destructive female rocker, obviously modeled on Janis Joplin although her repertoire owes mroe to Grace Slick.
Despite its nomumental triteness and superficiality, this chronicle seems to last about a century. Evidently, Bakshi envisions it as an affirmation of the vitality of pop culture.
The movie is also compromised pictorially by Bakshi's continued reliance on animated imagery. The term "living animation" really is insufferable, because the fundamental esthetic defect of Bakshi's current technique -- a form of tracing -- is its hybrid lifelessness.
In both "wizards" and "Lord of the Rings," one detected in Bakshi a longing to direct live-action adventure spectacles. "American Pop" masks a desire to do an expansive historical family saga fusing the gangster melodrama with the show-biz musical biography. Sort of The Godfather Meets Yankee Doodle Dandy.