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Western Animation / American Pop

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American Pop is a 1981 animated film directed by Ralph Bakshi, the maker of Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and the animated The Lord of the Rings. The screenplay was written by Ronni Kern.

In contrast to most Bakshi works, American Pop is a fairly realistically grounded drama that focuses on the lineage of a family closely involved with the history of American popular music, from Swing and Jazz to Pop, Rock, and Punk. Though it's a different type of story than those that Bakshi is usually associated with (street dramas and fantasy films), it does exemplify Bakshi's unique vision for animation as a medium that could be used to tell any story, and in making a mature drama aimed at adult audiences, American Pop definitely breaks away from the perception that All Animation Is Disney. To this end, Bakshi was successful in making a film that can be appreciated by any viewer, not just those that are typically fans of animation.


The story is a Generational Saga starting at the turn of the 20th century, offering a perspective on the different styles of music, as well as the family line that takes a strong involvement in the creation of this music, beginning with a Jewish Mother and her son Zalmie (Jeffrey Lippa) escaping from a pogrom. The son begins working for Louie (Jerry Holland), a comedian at a burlesque house, and she dies in a sweatshop fire. The kid later marries a stripper named Bella (Lisa Jane Persky) and becomes involved with the mob, which continues to be associated with this family until the 1950s, when his grandson Tony (Ron Thompson) involves himself in Beat culture and later writes lyrics for a Psychedelic Rock band — and fathering Pete (Thompson), a blond-haired, blue-eyed son with a waitress in Kansas who will eventually accomplish what all the others in his family could not.


You might recognize several scenes from this film via Kanye West's music video "Heartless", which copied this film and its Rotoscoped animation as a tribute. The film itself contains a Crowning Soundtrack Of Awesome, with songs by Janis Joplin, The Doors, George Gershwin, Herbie Hancock, The Mamas & the Papas, Lou Reed, Louis Prima, Pat Benatar and Jimi Hendrix. Not to mention, Bob Dylan songs are portrayed within the context of the story as being written by one of the main characters. American Pop is one of Bakshi's most acclaimed films as the result of its mature story, and its use of music.

American Pop provides examples of the following tropes:

  • An Immigrant's Tale: It all begins with Zalmie, who came from Russia.
  • Anti-Hero: The members of the immigrant family get steadily less heroic and admirable as the generations pass. Pete being the only one that manages to achieve genuine musical stardom is partially because the failures of his forefathers made it so that he had nothing left to lose.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: "Why the hell do you think?" said by preteen Little Pete when Tony, now a heroin addict, asks why he stayed with him if Little Pete didn't trust him, revealing that he knows Tony is his father. Tony says it back moments later upon realizing he's not helping Little Pete and gives him Benny's harmonica as a family heirloom, with Pete asking him why he's giving it to him.
  • Bittersweet Ending: It took four generations of tragedy and loss, but Pete finally succeeds in his family's long-sought goal of becoming a musical star.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Zalmie gets shot in the throat during a German air raid, ending his singing career as a result.
  • Casual Car Giveaway: Tony takes his family's car as far away from New York as he can. Once he gets to California, he leaves it to the many hitchhikers he picked up along the way — then, at the last second, he tells them it's stolen, scaring most of them away.
  • Children Raise You: Played with, Tony is by far the Belinsky with the least character development in the movie, and a lot of what happens to him at the end is the product of his bad decisions, just like with his forefathers, but unlike them, he refuses to change his ways and just sinks deeper into his addiction. It's pretty clear that without Pete he wouldn't have lasted as long as he did note , and even then he is quite a bit of an Ungrateful Bastard to him. However, when Pete reveals that he knows Tony is his father, he has an epiphany on how much he's damaging Pete and gives him the harmonica that belonged to his father telling him that maybe Pete got some talent from him. Too bad this is followed by him abandoning Pete.
  • Creator Cameo: As per tradition, Bakshi voices one character in this film. He's the pianist rehearsing with a heavily pregnant Bella who tells her that the song she's singing is going to be a hit.
  • Close to Home: Giving Tony a bowl of corn flakes is a surprising and unusual way to set him off. Justified since Tony was in a cornfield when Frankie died, which unsurprisingly connects the memories in a bad way.
  • Defector from Decadence: Years later after Benny's death and spending years in jail waiting to be freed by Palumbo (which Palumbo never did), Zalmie comes clean on TV and essentially rats out Palumbo, which begins the downfall of his gang.
  • Destructive Romance: The best (or worst) way you could define Tony and Frankie's relationship is with this trope. To summarize: they started their relationship almost right after her divorce and both of them already using drugs, which set them as a co-dependent couple where they're even shown getting high together. Later, we see Frankie being plastered right before a concert and Tony presumably black-out drunk next to her. It ends tragically after she dies from a heroin overdose, pretty much destroying Tony; he disappears altogether from the music business, becoming an Addled Addict and homeless, with only Pete staying by his side.
  • Everybody Must Get Stoned: Tony is slipped LSD during a concert. He sees the crowd as live-action actors rather than rotoscoped animation, falls and injures himself, and winds up in the hospital, after which he becomes addicted to heroin and painkillers. Definitely not a good trip.
  • False Friend: Palumbo, during the wedding of Benny to his daughter, he claimed that he gained a "brother" in Zalmie, but the moment he stops being useful note  he let him take the fall for, presumably, a botched job, which landed him in the state prison. He then made lots of promises of getting Zalmie out of there as soon as he could with no intention of ever doing so (even worse, he had meant to kill him — letting him be arrested had been Louie's idea, with the promise that Zalmie would not talk). After eight years, Zalmie responded in kind by ratting him out on live television.
  • Generic Ethnic Crime Gang: It's not specifically stated what ethnicity most of the gangsters in this film are. Except for Zalmie, who's a Russian Jewish immigrant. Being that the crime boss's last name is "Palumbo", it could be The Mafia, though the entire gang is not specifically Italian, and might be a mixed gang.note 
  • Genetic Memory: Pete must have definitely felt something when he paused in front of the street synagogue, hearing the rabbi's melodic litany.
  • Gilded Cage: Downplayed, since Zalmie doesn't exactly force Benny to do anything, but given that he seemed committed to having his son married with children and just playing the piano forever, never being involved in any dirty business like him, just living happily without any worry in the world, one can assume he meant for him to never get out of that bubble. Unfortunately, Benny is not blind to what his father does and wants to start a better life, with a steady and respectable job. Too bad it led him to enlist and eventually get killed in action.
  • Heroic Bastard: While "heroic" may be pushing it due to the grey morality of the movie, Pete was the result of Tony having a one-night-stand with a blonde waitress — the only one in the Belinsky family to be born out of wedlock, actually, which makes it ironic he ended up being the most successful of them.
  • Hookers and Blow: Tony was once a songwriter for a successful rock band. After the band's singer dies due to drug and alcohol abuse, he finds himself dealing coke on the street with his son in tow.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: A stripper with a heart of gold, Bella, whom Zalmie marries and fathers a child with.
  • I Just Knew: Tony, upon seeing little Pete for the first time, knew exactly who he was: his illegitimate son from a one-night stand with a blonde, blue-eyed waitress years ago in Kansas.
  • It Runs in the Family: The love for music; unfortunately, the tendency to make very bad choices to pursue dreams of making it big in the business also seems to be hereditary.
  • Jewish Mother: Zalmie's mom exhibits this after he's been out working for Louie.
  • Jive Turkey: Tony shows signs of this, and his son, Pete, more so.
  • Long Song, Short Scene: Looking for the piano-based alternate version of "Night Moves" (as opposed to the album version, which had more prominent guitars instead)? Yeah, you're not going to find it outside of this movie. It's not on the soundtrack album, and it was never released on any of Bob Seger's albums.
  • Love at First Sight:
    • Zalmie was completely smitten with Bella from the moment he saw her, calling her the most beautiful thing he ever saw, even taking offense at Louie mildly teasing that she might be ugly. The feeling seemed to be mutual, for she welcomed his advances and remained with him until her tragic death from a bomb that was intended for her husband.
    • Tony also falls for the blonde waitress at the dinner in Kansas, or at least he claims this and even tries to convince her to come with him. She declines but still has sex with him which resulted in Pete, whom he recognized as his son immediately because he had the same blonde hair and eyes he presumably fell for all those years ago. It's worth noting that it's also implied he fell for Frankie as soon as he met her, and was very distraught when he learned that she married a bandmate during his stay at the hospital.
  • Murder by Mistake: Towards the end of the first half, Bella picks up a package that is assumed to be pretzels ordered by Zalmie. Unfortunately, Bella discovers too late that the package is a bomb meant for her husband, and she's killed instantly.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer gives off the idea that Pete is the center of attention in the entire story, when in truth his story arc is the shortest and he has little obstacles aside from just trying to play his song at the recording studio.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
    • Frankie Hart is essentially Janis Joplin, right down to her death due to alcohol and heroin use.
    • Tony has shades of Syd Barrett. In one scene, while the band is rehearsing, he is seen sitting in a closet writing lyrics (quirky lyrics were Barrett's specialty). Then there's his mental deterioration from drug use starting with that one bad trip. Finally, there's his vanishing act altogether.
  • No Name Given: Lots of characters, but Tony's and Pete's mothers stand out as nameless or even barely knowing anything about them beyond their relationships with the men of the Belinsky family.
  • Oh, Crap!: Zalmie gets one as he yells at Bella not to open the box, which contains an explosive meant for him.
  • The One That Got Away: The blonde waitress from Kansas that Tony had a one-night-stand with, he confessed to her and offered her to travel with him but she refused which is understandable since they just met. Later on, when Tony meets Pete and realizes he must be his son conceived that night, he goes to the cornfield while remembering the short time he spent with her, while the lyrics of the song imply he laments what could have been.
  • Parental Abandonment: After Tony sits down and gives his son Benny's harmonica, he disappears and sends a messenger to hand him a bag of drugs (to get started as a dealer) and has them say goodbye for him.
    Pete: Did he tell you anything else?
    Messenger: No... Uh, yeah! He said to say, "goodbye"...
  • Parental Substitute: Louie becomes this for Zalmie, particularly after his mother dies. He takes the kid under his wing, teaches him about the music and entertainment business, sticks by his side even after the injury that ruined his voice, and more or less tells him to go after Bella when he sees how smitten Zalmie is with her. It wasn't always positive, since it was also him who introduced him to Palumbo, but it was thanks to him that Zalmie wasn't killed by him and was thrown into jail instead, and even when Zalmie rats them all out on live television, he's the only one who doesn't look bothered by it in the slightest.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Implied between Benny and Palumbo's daughter. Despite having married for convenience and at the request of their parents, what little time they spent together was enough for Benny to try and find a steady job and provide for their son. After he is killed in the war, her father is shown berating her for still carrying a torch for him eight years later, and even when Tony is already a teenager, it's mentioned that she apparently locks herself in her bedroom to listen to his records.
  • Pretty Fly for a White Guy: Downplayed with Pete. Seeing that he was with Tony for a majority of his teenhood and grew up on the streets after being abandoned by Tony, he essentially learned how to dress the part and speak in slang more than Tony ever did.
  • Punch-Clock Hero: The only reason Benny ever joined the army during World War II against Zalmie's wishes was that he wanted to redeem his family name and earn money for his wife and future child, even though he was more interested in playing piano music. Sadly, that last part is what causes him to let his guard down and get killed in the war.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The montage of Pete dealing drugs makes it pretty clear that he's only selling cocaine because it's his only means of livelihood and that, just like Benny, he'd much rather be playing music.
  • Rotoscoping: Most of the film is this.
  • Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Zalmie and Tony often get in trouble with the first two while trying to get at the third, and Benny gave up the third because of Zalmie's involvement with the second later on. Tellingly, Pete, who is all about the music despite dealing drugs, is the only one that manages to triumph as a musician.
  • Surprisingly Sudden Death: While on the battlefield, Benny comes across a piano and begins to play when he's found by a German. Benny plays a song, the German listens with a serene look on his face, thanks him for it... and then guns him down.
  • Token Good Teammate: Out of all of the Belinskys, Benny is the only one who rejects an unclean or criminal lifestyle in general, the latter which Zalmie gets involved in, and becomes a soldier in World War II in the hopes of redeeming his family name. Of course, you can imagine how that works out for him: he gets killed for it, which leaves his son Tony without a father. To make matters worse, his son grows up to be unscrupulous, making his attempt at redeeming the Belinsky family name completely backfire until years later, when Pete comes into the picture and finally gets fed up with being a drug dealer like his father.
  • Too Dumb to Live: You do not put your weapon down in a hostile area just to play the piano. Benny finds that out the hard way.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Benny. He's actually willing to put aside his love of the piano and go to war in the hopes that doing so will make his wife and son more financially secure with the steady job he can get afterwards from his GI Bill. What does he get for trying to do that? A German soldier shoots him in the back when he lets his guard down to play an undamaged piano he finds.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: This is the reason Palumbo has Zalmie take the fall for something and end up in prison for eight years. In a more straight example, he wanted to have him killed, and it's only because of Louie that he at least got to live.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The blonde waitress is the only one of the "mothers" about whom we never find out anything after her fling with Tony, besides the fact that she gives birth to his son. We don't know why Pete leaves her, if she raised him, or if she's even alive by the time her son is introduced.