The United States of America
“I had this dream that animation could be the medium of the people...if Disney worked for the middle class, I was gonna work for the kids in the street.” - Ralph Bakshi
Somewhere in New York City, a skinny young man with hair as yellow as corn weaves in and out of a nerve-frayed punk wasteland. He carries a bag of narcotics which will soon pulsate through the veins of a generation of alienated musicians. It is the 1980s and everyone he meets seems bleary-eyed, sick, and apathetic. However, as he struts down the streets, he hears a sound which catches his attention: an Orthodox Jew singing a hymn. The young man stops, turns, adjusts his sunglasses to get a better look. Something stirs deep inside him and he begins to pulsate in time with the singing. As he walks away to meet his customers, the young man can’t shake the odd rhythm.
This young man is Pete Bolinski. And though he doesn’t know it, he has just reunited with a heritage that he didn’t even realize was his birthright. It is a heritage of culture and religion, of traditions lost in the shuffle of war and tragedy. It is a heritage of several generations of young men who in seeking to find their place in American society helped forge it. But most of all, it is a heritage of music; a heritage of American pop.
Audacious in scope and staggering in ambition, Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop is one of the great iconoclastic animator’s most indomitable films. The film manages to chart nearly 90 years of history in approximately the same number of minutes, creating a lush tapestry of emotion and drama that attempts nothing less than a summation of 20th century American popular music.
Most sources claim that American Pop follows four generations of the Bolinski family. But actually, it covers five. The first is Rabbi Jaacov Bolinski, the victim of a late 1890s pogrom in Tzarist Russia. As his community is attacked by Cossacks, Rabbi Jaacov forces his wife and ten-year-old son, Zalmie, to flee as he stays behind to finish his interrupted prayer and protect the Torah. The scene of Jaacov’s death, his family’s flight, and the ghetto’s destruction is set to the sounds of a Ukrainian religious chant. This haunting music is like a kaddish for the Bolinskis as they mourn the loss of their old lives, their old ways, their old songs.
As a nation of immigrants, American culture and music was borne not on its own shores, but from the tattered remnants of the Old Countries. In this way, Rabbi Jaacov Bolinski and his martyred songs are just as important as his descendants.
But after receiving a vicious throat wound during World War One, he abandons the stage and falls in with mobsters so he can support his new wife and child, Benny.
As a teenager, Benny throws himself into the world of music and becomes a jazz piano virtuoso. And yet, there is something...off...about Benny. I suspect that today he would be diagnosed with either autism or Asperger’s. Painfully shy and rigidly introverted, he doesn’t even scream or cry when he watches his mother get accidentally killed by a bomb intended for Zalmie. He just silently watches and continues playing the piano.
He eventually marries the daughter of Zalmie’s mob boss and impregnates her. But it’s easy to suspect that if the marriage hadn’t been arranged, Benny would have lived a life of self-imposed celibacy
Despite Zalmie’s objections, Benny enlists to fight in World War Two. In one of the truly transcendent moments of Bakshi’s career, Benny discovers a piano in a bombed out building in Nazi Germany. As he begins to play As Time Goes By, a Nazi soldier emerges from the rubble and takes aim at him. Benny pauses for just a moment before playing the first few bars of Lili Marleen. The Nazi, overcome with emotion, closes his eyes. For a few short seconds they partake in a communion of beauty and joy. “Danke.” Gunshots. A blood-stained piano.
Cut to years later and Zalmie’s son, Tony, is a spaced-out pressure cooker of anger and fear who steals his stepfather’s car and goes on a cross-country roadtrip. During one stop in Kansas, he finds a moment of peace with a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed waitress. We suspect that this tryst will be one of the last times that anything will truly make sense in his life. For Tony is so uptight that he seems doomed to self-destruction.
Once in San Francisco, Tony joins a six-piece rock group as a harmonica player. Visions of Haight-Ashbury, heroin, and rock ‘n’ roll coalesce into the mother of all bad trips that leaves his lover, the lead singer of the band (an amalgam of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin), dead of an overdose and himself stranded in New York City with a familiar-looking blonde-haired young boy.
Perhaps realizing that his continued presence will only serve to doom his son, Tony abandons the boy (after taking his acoustic guitar to pawn for drug money).
The boy eventually becomes a man: Pete Bolinski, drug-dealer extraordinaire for the New York punk scene. Just as Zalmie before him, Pete is a stranger in a strange land, forced to hustle for survival on the mean streets of NYC. And just like his fathers before him, he is destined for a career and future in American pop. One day he forces one of his clients to record one of his songs or he will cut off their supply. The band reluctantly agrees. The rest...is history.
American Pop saw the height of Bakshi’s talents both as a storyteller and an animator. The rotoscoping techniques that Bakshi experimented with in Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978) reach new levels of beauty and magnificence in American Pop. By rotoscoping his characters (and historical footage from classic movies like The Public Enemy  and Stormy Weather ), the film exudes an aura of authenticity, almost like an animated documentary.
Unlike his earlier films like Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975) where characters were represented as extreme racial caricatures, Bakshi and his animators took great pains to detail every nook and cranny of their subjects. Some might find this technique repellant, but I think it highlights a facet of Bakshi’s work that has gone criminally under-appreciated and under-examined: his warm humanism.
Some might say that American Pop is a tragedy that mourns the destructive influence of American society on the marginalized. But I think Bakshi had other ideas. Notice how, despite everything that the five generations of Bolinskis lose, they always have the music. It is an inexplicable bond that connects them together through the fires of war and the march of time. It is something that can never be broken, defined, or explained. It is the fire of the pogroms, the crowded seats of vaudeville halls, the bleary-eyed piano players, the human debris of the Lost Generation, and the punks with nothing to lose. It is American Pop.