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 focuses on a number of different time periods, 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, fathering a blond haired, blue eyed son with a waitress in Kansas.
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 Cornflakes is a surprising and unusual way to set him off. Justified seeing that Tony was in a cornfield when Frankie died.
- 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.
- 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 mafia.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: A stripper with a heart of gold, Bella, whom Zalmie marries and fathers a child with.
- Jewish Mother: Zalmie's mom exhibits this after he's been out working for Louie.
- Jive Turkey: Tony shows signs of this.
- Killed Offscreen: Its heavily implied that Tony went to commit suicide as he abandoned Pete with only drugs to sell, with his only message to him being goodbye.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 he'd much rather be playing music.
- Rotoscoping: Most of the film is this.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: The protagonists often get in trouble with the first two while trying to get at the third. Tellingly, Pete, who is all about the music, is the only one that manages to triumph as a musician.
- Should Have Thought of That Before XPalumbo: 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.
- 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.
- 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.