A visually stunning cult classic: Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop” at the Trylon


Review by Trylon rotoscopist Maria Gomez

Ralph Bakshi’s 1981 cult classic film American Pop a timeless story of one Russian family and their history of  American music told through four generations. The story begins with Zalmie coming to America with his mother in the late 19th century as Russian immigrants. They are looking for a better life than what they had in war-torn Russia. Through an unfortunate event, Zalmie finds himself living the life of a stage performer.  As the story continues we see Zalmie grow and live through societal and political changes but we also see the growth of his musical family; his sons, his grandson, his great grandson, and so on.  We see how each generation changes from the last and we see each character grow with the times, the wars, the fashion trends, and the music….always the music.

If you walk away from this film remembering two things, it will be the animation and the music.  Bakshi implemented some of the most famous American music of the 20th Century and he did not exclude any musical genre. We even hear the Vaudevillian music that was popular at the start of the 20th century to the Big Band era of the 1940’s all the way to the punk scene when it reached America in the late 1970’s.  Bakshi really throws the progression of musical evolution and styles together so eloquently that it flows naturally and only adds to the story that is being told. In a brilliant sequence in the film, Bakshi attempts to show us the tragic contrast of that time by presenting various couples swing dancing to Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing while alternating with scenes that take us through the violence of World War II.

Bakshi also makes use of visual imagery in the film and not only with his animation. He truly creates an emotional backdrop of the time by inserting photographic images, as well as live action video footage of pinnacle moments in time. Iconic images that we have all seen before but here, are cleverly used in a way to tell the story with impact-to take us back to that time that we can experience for just a brief moment but one that will never happen again.  From the infamous image of a woman horrified at the Kent State College shooting to the gruesome image of a Vietnamese man being executed by a militant on the street, Bakshi charges the film chock-full of emotion that is difficult to deny.  One reason that this film may feel so emotional is Bakshi’s style of animation. Bakshi used a technique called Rotoscoping in which his illustrators would draw over live actors; through this technique he was able to give the impression of realism in a way that brought the character’s facial expressions and body movements to life.

In this way that he gave “life” to his subjects through his filming style and animation technique, Bakshi gives us a cinematic painting of a slice in time. Although some critics may disapprove of this style, there is no denying that, combined with the music soundtrack and stunning visual imagery,  American Pop is one of Bakshi’s most stunning films to date. — Maria Gomez

 AMERICAN POP screens Monday and Tuesday, August 10 and 11 at 7:00 and 9:00 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.

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