Before we had subversive content like Bojack Horseman or channels like Adult Swim, cartoons were pretty much only seen as kiddie fare and dismissed by mainstream audiences. The advent of MTV’s original programming started to turn the tide with shows like Aeon Flux and Beavis and Butthead. Television is one thing, but it’s still difficult to get folks into theaters for features like Sausage Party (2016).
There was a valiant try in the 1970s when counterculture illustrator and filmmaker Ralph Bakshi (one of the few animators the casual filmgoer knew by name) used 2D to tell some pretty wild, adults-only tales—Fritz the Cat (1972) was X-rated, while Coonskin (1975) took on the popular “blaxploitation” genre. The response was favorable, but those movies didn’t bring in the box office bucks like their live-action counterparts did.
As the ’80s rolled in on a cloud of Aqua Net hairspray, audiences were tired of the heavy dramas made by auteurs. Now the fantasy genre would rule at the box office, spawning live-action classics like Legend, Labyrinth, Willow, and The Princess Bride. Those movies had a rock & roll edge to some degree, what with David Bowie starring in one of them and another featuring the music of Tangerine Dream and Bryan Ferry. But a short-lived spate of musical fantasy cartoons was taking the fairy-tales-for-adults conceit a step further—American Pop, Heavy Metal, and the barely-known Rock & Rule entwined music’s biggest stars into an entirely new and different hybrid genre meant for grown-ups.
American Pop (1981)
Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop follows four generations of a musical family from the 1890s through the modern day, using various animation techniques, including rotoscoping. The family’s story mirrors that of the evolution of pop and rock music and is told through the fathers—giving the word “pop” a double meaning. There’s also some poetry, most notably by Beat icon Allen Ginsberg. Thanks to the director’s reputation, music by Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Mamas & the Papas, Herbie Hancock, Lou Reed, and Pat Benatar was secured for under $1 million—however, these permissions only extended to the big screen, so because of music clearance issues, the film was not released on home video until 1998, which decreased a crucial portion of its audience.
Heavy Metal (1981)
Heavy Metal is one of the few feature films based on a magazine—not a magazine article, but the whole periodical. The paper version of Heavy Metal made its debut in 1977 and attracted a fanbase through its blend of dark fantasy/science fiction, erotica, and steampunk comics. In fact, it’s still being published to this day. The film was directed by Gerald Potterton, who’d worked as an animator on The Beatle’s psychedelic cartoon, Yellow Submarine, but he didn’t draw it; instead, the then-cutting edge tech of rotoscoping was used to bring the characters to life. Critical response was tepid but Heavy Metal was the top-grossing Canadian-made movie for a short while (Porky’s toppled it). While the somewhat incomprehensible Heavy Metal was met with mixed reviews, it’s since become a cult favorite. The killer soundtrack was packaged by the revered music mogul Irving Azoff and included songs by Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Don Felder, Grand Funk Railroad, Cheap Trick, DEVO, Journey, and Nazareth.
Rock & Rule (1983)
In hopes of mirroring the above two movies’ modest successes, an independent film studio (Nelvana, Ltd.) sunk $8 million into Rock & Rule, a dark fantasy tale about a punk rock star who is kidnapped by evil forces. Set in a post-apocalyptic Nuke York, man is extinct but vermin have evolved, taking on human characteristics (the antithesis to “Disney mice”). Despite the talent behind the camera—director Clive Smith got his start animating for The Beatles and was hired by George Lucas in 1977 to helm the first animated Star Wars special, A Wookie’s Christmas; plus there was music by Blondie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Earth, Wind, & Fire—the film flopped, earning a paltry $30,379 at the box office. The failure nearly put its producers out of business, then the original print was destroyed in a fire, leaving only edited versions available. Rock & Rule disappeared for a while but was revived via BitTorrent and finally received a legitimate, 2-disc special edition release on DVD in 2005.
-Staci Layne Wilson
Photo: Fair use image from movie poster of “Heavy Metal”