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Western Animation / American Pop

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A 1981 animated film from Ralph Bakshi, the maker of Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and the animated The Lord of the Rings.

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 escaping from a pogrom. The son begins working for a comedian at a burlesque house, and she dies in a sweatshop fire. The kid later marries a stripper and becomes involved with the mob, which continues to be associated with this family until the 1950s, when his grandson involves himself in Beat culture and later writes lyrics for a Psychedelic Rock band — and fathering 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
  • 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 due to the fact that the failures of his forefathers made it so that he had nothing left to lose.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Why the hell do you think?" said by preteen Little Pete when Tony asks why, if Litte Pete didn't trust Tony, now a heroin addict, stayed with him, because he is Pete's 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.
  • Berserk Button: Giving Tony a bowl of Cornflakes 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.
  • Bittersweet Ending: It took four generations of tragedy and loss, but Pete finally succeeds his families long sought goal of becoming a musical star.
  • 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 product of his bad decisions, like 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 quite a bit of an Ungrateful Bastard to him, however when Pete reveals that he knows Tony is his father, he has an epihpahy 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.
  • Defector from Decadence: Years later after Benny's death and spending years in jail waiting to be freed by Palumbo (which he never did), Zalmie comes clean on TV and essentially rats out Palumbo and 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 summerize: 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 ended tragically when after she dies from an heroin overdose; pretty much destroying Tony, he dissapears altogether from the music bussiness, 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 pain killers. 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 (presumbaly for a botched job) which landed him in the state prison, made lots of promises of getting him out of there as soon as he could with no intentions of ever doing it, even worse; he had meant to kill him, let him be arrested had been Louie's idea. with the promise that Zalmie would not talk, but after eight years, Zalmie responded in kind by ratting him out in 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' 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 he seemed committed to have his son married, with children and just playing the piano forever, never being involved in any dirty bussiness 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 killed while in service.
  • 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 succesful of them.
  • Hookers and Blow: Tony was once a songwriter for a successful rock band. After the band's singer dies due to drug abuse, including alcohol, 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 blond, blue eyed waitress years ago in Kansas.
  • It Runs in the Family: The love for music, unfortunately the tendency to make very bad choices in order to pursue dreams of making it big in the bussiness 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, moreso.
  • 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 for 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 together until her tragic death due to a bomb that was intended for her husband.
    • Tony also falls at first sight to 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 immediatly 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • 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 and has them say goodbye for them.
    Pete: Did he tell you anything else?
    Messenger: No...--Yeah! He said to say, "goodbye"...
  • Parental Substitute: Louie becomes this for Zalmie, particularly after his mother died, he took the kid under his wing and it's him who teaches him about the music and entertainment bussiness and stuck by his side even after the injury that ruined his voice, 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 he wasn't killed by him and 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 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 on still carrying a torch for him eight years later, even further when Tony is already a teenager, it's mentioned that she apparently locks herself in her bedroom to hear 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 WWII against Zalmie's wishes was because of the fact 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 him 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.
  • Should Have Thought of That Before X
    Palumbo: Don't you think it's time for a wedding?
    Zalmie: How can I ask her? I don't have a cent.
    Palumbo: You should have thought of that before you got her pregnant.
  • 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 corn field while remembers the short time he spent with her while the lyrics of the song imply he laments what could have been.
  • Too Dumb to Live: You do not put your weapon down in a hostile area just to play the piano. Benny found that out the hard way.
  • Token Good Teammate: Out of all of the Belinskys, Benny was the only one who rejected an unclean or criminal lifestyle in general, the latter which Zalmie dabbled in, and became a soldier in World War II in the hopes of redeeming his family name. Of course, you can imagine how that worked out for him; he got killed for it, which left his son Tony without a father. To make matters worse, his son grew up to be unscrupulous, making his attempt at redeeming the Belinsky family name completely backfire until years later when Pete came into the picture and finally got fed up with being a drug dealer like his father.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Benny. He's actually willing to put aside his love of the piano and go to war just 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. And 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 was the reason Palumbo had Zalmie take the fall for something and end up in prison for eight years, in a more straight example he wanted to kill him and it was only because of Loiue that he at least got to live.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The last anyone sees of Zalmie is on TV testifying against Palumbo. After that he is never seen again nor does anyone even speak of him.
    • Tony is never mentioned again after he abandons Pete; not even in Pete's arc.
    • The blonde waitress, is the only one of the "mothers" which we never find out anything after her fling with Tony, besides that she gave birth to his son, we don't know why Pete left her, if she raised him or if she was even alive by the time her son is introduced.


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