Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Animation April: Rock & Rule (1983)

  

This...this is a weird one.

It's much weirder than Project A-ko, even though A-ko is a movie about dueling schoolgirls and men with vaginas directed by a pantyshot-obsessed twentysomething missing at least two of his incisors. A-ko can't even touch Rock & Rule.

At least A-ko belongs to a distinct and recognizable clade in the evolutionary annals of animation. It's an anime from the 1980s, iconic during its time, and it had a perceptible impact on the cartoons produced in Japan. For all its screwiness, we can place it. Rock & Rule is an aberration.

It would probably be best grouped with the Bakshi-and-allies aggregate. (Incidentally, bootleg copies of Rock & Rule passed around at conventions erroneously attributed the film to him.) Ralph Bakshi is/was a ballsy chap: he had the then-outlandish idea that feature-length cartoons could be something other than family-friendly adaptations of children's storybooks, and made a handful of films during the 1970s and early 1980s that were not, not, not for kids (and he also cast Tolkien onto the silver screen decades before Peter Jackson). Other Western animation studios took notice, and followed Bakshi's example in pushing the envelope in which Disney had sealed the industry for almost half a century. Watership Down (1978) and The Last Unicorn (1982) were a couple of films about rabbits and a magical horsey marketed to general audiences—but everyone I know who watched them as youngsters walked away seriously rattled. (Alex McLevy of The A.V. Club wrote a very nice piece about The Last Unicorn and how it once scared the hell out of him.) Oppositely there was Heavy Metal (1981), brimming with graphic violence, exposed breasts, and lurid juvenility, and inappropriate for anyone but seventeen-year-old males.

And there was also Rock & Rule, but nobody noticed.

Rock & Rule was the second feature-length animated film to be produced in Canada, and the first in the English language. The studio responsible was Nelvana: someone my age might remember its ursine logo from the credits of kids' shows like Inspector Gadget (1983), Beetlejuice (1989), and Eek! the Cat (1992). Star Wars fans tuning in for the first and only airing of the legendarily wretched holiday special in 1978 would have seen Nelvana's prints on the animated short that introduced Boba Fett to the world.

Nelvana's triumvirate of founders—Clive A. Smith, Michael Hirsch and Patrick Loubert—directed and produced Rock & Rule. They got to work in 1979, and had a finished film after four years of rewrites, redesigns, and redirections. The process ended up costing something in the neighborhood $8 million. Obviously most of the budget went to compensating Nelvana's hundreds of in-house animators and production staff for their labor, but the the original songs composed and performed by Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Robin Zander, and Earth, Wind & Fire for the soundtrack couldn't have come cheap, either.

Rock & Rule aired only on television in Canada, but was picked up by MGM for distribution in the United States. After some underwhelming test screenings in Boston and negative press, it was shelved and resigned to the ignominious home video market. At the end of the day, Nelvana nearly went bankrupt for all its trouble, explaining why its next two films were the emphatically unambitious The Care Bears Movie (1985) and The Care Bears Movie II: A New Generation (1986), which trawled up a thousand times more money than Rock & Rule. (Wait: "A New Generation?" THE CAST IS EXACTLY THE SAME AS BEFORE, YOU JERKS.)

Saying Rock & Rule has fallen into obscurity since is debut wouldn't mean much: "obscure" was its baseline status at launch. I'd neither seen it nor heard of it until a couple of months ago. As it turns out, even YouTube's "Recommendation for You" algorithms associate Rock & Rule with Ralph Bakshi.

I was flabbergasted: Where did this come from? How did this get made? I'll confess to watching it three times in the span of a week. I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that a movie like this existed. Rock & Rule is a duckbill platypus of high-end animation. Taken separately, all its individual components are more than competently crafted: its gritty, tenebrous world is richly realized, it's got colorful and idiosyncratic character designs, and the plot is economical and lucid (though sometimes a little glitchy in its writing). But the organism comprised by their union is damn near inexplicable.

My fondness for and fascination with Pierre; or, The Ambiguities is well- (albeit self-) documented. Melville's kraken is a shambolic moonshot of a novel that falls far short of its author's ambitions, but the clarity of its intention through the sloppy and increasingly desperate execution (and the contrast therein) invest it with a provocative strength absent in airtight novels like The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God (singled out because I can't find a damn thing to criticize in them). So it figures that an asymmetrical, self-sabotaging, exuberantly daring 'toon flick like Rock & Rule was fast-tracked for a place in my heart.

Returning to the Bakshi taxon: let's consider Rock & Rule's position on a spectrum with The Last Unicorn at one extreme and Heavy Metal on the other. Despite being an ostensibly all-ages film, The Last Unicorn possesses a maturity and mystique not to be found in a typical Disney feature. Oppositely, the "adult" film Heavy Metal is a smorgasbord of sleaze and pulp kitschiness. Rock & Rule is maladroitly centered between these two poles: whether it suffers from arrested development or an ungainly precocity is totally up for debate.

Let's start with how the plot unfolds. We've got four early-twentysomething musicians living in a town that's sort of like a fictional Minneapolis: a relatively quiet, secondary or tertiary city. Their band is still in the stumbling, getting-it-together stage. Angel (vocals, keyboards) and Omar (vocals, guitar) are the group's creative engines, and are at loggerheads: Omar wants to do thrash punk and scream about how everyone sucks, and Angel to sound, well, more like Debby Harry. The fact that Angel is clearly the more talented one makes things a bit awkward, as does their budding, sub rosa romantic involvement with each other. (This is interesting stuff to me: I've had many musician friends, and I recognize some of their struggles and compromises here.)

The city is also home to an aging, world-famous rocker named Mok. To extend the Minneapolis analogy, he's like Prince: an S-tier recording artist who comes from a flyover town. Mok takes an interest in Angel, and becomes dead set on harnessing her talent. He makes her an offer: ditch her friends, work with him instead, avail herself of his connections and resources. Despite Angel's protests that the band is starting to come together, they've thus only gotten gigs at deserted clubs, and in light of how Omar stormed offstage with a bruised ego at their last show, their immediate prospects aren't looking good. Still, Angel refuses to sell out her friends for her own shot at the big time. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Mok roofies and kidnaps her. Her bandmates, having been told that she left with Mok by her own choice, follow Mok's airship to Nuke York to get an explanation out of her.

Yes: "Nuke York." Because Rock & Rule takes place in a post-nuclear war United States. Also: after the Big One, cats, dogs, and mice mutated into humanoids to rebuild and perpetuate civilization—so, yeah, this is a furry movie. (I almost compared it to Ducktales before remembering Uncle Scrooge didn't appear on TV for another three years.) Also: Mok isn't interested in Angel because he wants to sell records. Her voice is precisely the right frequency he requires to activate the Armageddon Key, consummating a dark ritual to unleash an interdimensional demon upon the world.

Huh.

Rock & Rule entered production as an all-ages film, and was gradually repurposed as a flick for an older audience. The dissonance between its earlier conceived G-rated elements and its grafted-on PG-13 pieces permeates its whole run time. You've got a script containing expletive like "dicknose" and "aw shit." There's sex—not shown, but bluntly implied, and bits of nudity (asses, mostly, male and female). There's a scene at a hip Nuke York club where a shadester goes around peddling "uppers and downers, screamers and shouters, and things that make you go sideways." Outside the club's doors, the doorman murders undesirables with a ray gun instead of simply turning them away. ("You let mutants in and it spoils everything," a club kid quips, "they just don't know how to dress.") In a later scene, we watch Mok puffing on a joint; the camera cuts away, and when it comes back to him he's snorting coke. Mok's first attempt at summoning his demon—conducted under the guise of a concert at Carnegie Hall—goes awry, killing a few thousand people. When Angel refuses to cooperate with the second attempt, Mok has her pumped full of drugs, pinioned to the stage, and wired to a machine that lets him toggle her vocal chords via some kind of monstrous theramin. (The visual effect is really quite unnerving.) When the demon—an amorphous miasma of teeth, fangs, and glowing eyes, high-octane nightmare fuel for sensitive kids—arrives on the scene, the first thing it does is devour a cluster of audience members alive.

On the other hand, the anthropomorphic animals angle—a staple of comics and cartoons for kids—can only be an extraneous remnant of the initial leg of production, and works to the detriment of a film that wants to be viewed by an older audience. Whereas the three main characters' model sheets clearly saw some redesigns to make them look less cartoonish and attenuate their animal features, apparently nobody thought to update the secondary cast members. Mok's henchmen/stage technicians are ersatz Beagle Boys on rollerskates. Angel and Omar's other two bandmates would also seem more at home in a Disney Afternoon show, and not only because of their larger eyes, exaggerated expressions, and more accentuated animal features. Dizzy's big moment at the edge of the climax is his delivery of an emotional admonition to Omar for not listening to his heart, or some such matinee claptrap. And Stretch is—well, he's not quite on the level of a Jar Jar Binks, but he's cut from the same bumbling, dopey, comic-relief cloth. He was conceived as a device to make children laugh, and remains to serve that function in a movie that children aren't supposed to be watching. As for the demon, Mok's grey-matter supercomputer warns him that it has one weakness: "the magic of one voice, one heart, one song," which essentially translates to: "an eighties power ballad sung by the chick from Blondie and the dude from Cheap Trick." (MOTHER's frighful antagonist is also defeated by singing, but Itoi's all-ages RPG has the shrewdness to provide a reason for its effectiveness other than "love&friendship magic.")

For all the content that catapults Rock & Rule out of general audience appropriateness, it's still very much set in the frame of a G-rated feature. And that's why it flopped, its top-of-the-line animation and A-list soundtrack notwithstanding. MGM deemed it too much of an adult movie for kids, and too much of a kids' movie for adults, and saw no sense in sacrificing resources to nationally distribute a movie without an audience. It wouldn't really be fair to fault its judgment—especially in the context of the early 1980s, when American adults pretty much only watched animated movies in the theaters when they were chaperoning their kids.

The guys at Red Letter Media, who watch a lot of awful movies, have suggested an unscientific but useful spot analysis for determining whether a film is a bad one: the more you resort to the phrase "for some reason" when recapping the plot, the worse it is. By this metric, Rock & Rule can boast of being above the waterline, at the very least. Every setup is followed by an eventual payoff; the story's internal logic is straightforward and consistent; the main characters' motivations, conflicts, and contrasts are handled with an acuity that's often at variance with the cartoon stock-character obstuseness into which the rest of the cast is prone to dipping.

As a matter of fact, Rock & Rule's three central figures are each worth a momentary glance here:


Angel

If Rock & Rule can be called "progressive" for any reason other than its audacity to be an animated film for an older audience, that reason would be Angel. In a lesser movie, she'd wait out her captivity at Mok's hands as a helpless ingenue clasping her hands to her chest and waiting to be rescued. But Angel isn't some Disney princess deuteragonist—she's really Rock & Rule's main character, and she's not taking anyone's shit. She's ambitious, resourceful, and unafraid to put her bandmate/boyfriend Omar in his place and royally piss off her captor. (Even when she gets Mok mad enough to strangle her, she's still spitting out barbs between gasps.) I'm trying to think of pre-1990s English-language animated features with female leads who exercise personal agency—i.e., ones who don't spend most of their screen time cooking and cleaning for dwarves, crying, and comatosely waiting for a prince's kiss—and the only one other than Rock & Rule that springs directly to mind is, well, The Last Unicorn.

As far as fame and success are concerned, Angel wants them as badly as any hungry young musician, but she's much more community-minded in her aspirations. Omar is self-centered; Mok is an outright megalomaniac. Angel wants to make the big time, but doesn't want to do it without her friends beside her. You could say this is a reification of stereotypical "woman as selfless nurturer" trope, but it's really more about Angel being the only one of the three talents who doesn't have her head up her own ass.


Omar

Through the meta lens, Omar is probably the most interesting character in the movie because there's two Omars. There's the Omar of the Canadian broadcast, voiced by Gregory Salata, whose performance left a bad taste in MGM's mouth. Nelvana's arm was twisted into partially rewriting and completely redubbing Omar's dialogue with a different actor (Paul Le Mat) for the American release. So there are actually two versions of Rock & Rule whose main difference (aside for some brief scenes that appear exclusively in one or the other) is how Omar sounds and behaves. The version I stumbled across was actually an unofficial fan-restoration of the Canadian broadcast, so the Omar I'm familiar with is the one that made MGM hold its nose—and its reasons for meddling him out of the movie aren't hard to understand. Salata's Omar is abrasive, self-centered, lousy at interpersonal communication, and has nothing nice to say to anyone but Angel (and only occasionally at that.) Basically, he's Squall from Final Fantasy VIII as a furry 1980s punk rocker. A dick, in other words. Omar 2.0, on the other hand, is bit of a nicer guy, more communicative, and more supportive of his friends. Bland, in other words.

In either version, he still takes an obstinate my-way-or-the-highway position where his band is concerned (I've known folks in Jersey bands just like him), but it's less emphasized in the American release. By virtue of his heightened brusqueness, Omar's arc has a greater dimension in Rock & Rule Canada, and his inevitably manning up and doing the right thing by Angel (with a righteous rebel yell, no less) during the climax is more clearly understood as an act of redemption instead of the obligatory plot beat we all see coming. His freeing Angel from Mok's machine is less significant than his letting go of his ego and finally singing one of Angel's songs to help her banish the demon. (It actually does work in the movie, however silly it looks when spelled out.)


Mok

Aside from its surprising level of quality and general weirdness, Rock & Rule's greatest argument for itself is Mok, its antagonist and self-declared voodoo black magician priest. Mok is the rasping, sashaying ne plus ultra of cartoon villainy. He's a depraved amalgamation of Jim Jones, Jafar, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Marilyn Manson at his most washed up. Even in a joint that doesn't skimp at all on its animation, Mok's scowling facial contortions and arachnoid movements are noticeably more refined than everyone else's, sometimes to the point of inconsistency. He's so lavishly animated you can almost smell the cigarette smoke and nonenal on him.

I doubt it was Nelvana's intention to draw up Mok as a commentary on the solipsism of superstardom, but he does fit the profile, even if by accident. His whole oeuvre as a musician, from what we call tell, consists entirely of glorifying paeans to himself. He's the kind of performer with the budget to put on effect-heavy stage shows, and the kind of eccentric narcissist who still relies on them offstage in his dealings with the public. During his conversations with Angel, he constantly throws her off balance with holographic hocus-pocus. Judging by how his effects guys act like this is so much business as usual, we're meant to surmise that Mok gives the same treatment to all his guests. It's a high-tech extension of the rotating wigs he wears to conceal his baldness: Mok is obsessed with maintaining his image and his mystique as a rock n' roll magic man. He demands that everyone be amazed at him as he is with himself. So when his popularity began to wane, he became even more unhinged.

And it didn't wane much, mind you: his last arena concert wasn't entirely sold out, and he can barely contain his rage when mentioning the fact. Mok can't accept that this is just how it goes, even in a cartoon post-apocalyptic furry world. Even if the Beatles had stayed together for another thirty years, people would have gradually stopped noticing when new albums came out, and their singles wouldn't have dominated the charts anymore. The spotlight always moves on. A more graceful personality would abide it, and either go into retirement and pursue other interests, or just keep recording albums and touring anyway. A less graceful one would become deeply embittered, binge on booze and drugs, and occasionally direct nasty tweets toward the new crop of pop stars. Mok hasn't even the decency to do that: he becomes an obsessive recluse, bent on decrypting a mystic key that will allow him to summon an unstoppable demon to revenge himself on his own fans for their lapsing interest in him. If he has to surrender his position at the top of the rock and roll pyramid, then he's taking everyone else in the world down with him. (I somehow expect to see TMZ reports, ten years or so from now, about Kanye West breaking into New England libraries in search of the Necronomicon.)

Mok is such a magnificent monster man that he gets not one, but two celebrity musicians to provide his singing voice. Angel's songs are performed by Debbie Harry, and Omar's are by Robin Zander. Mok's vocals come courtesy, at different times, of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. What range! Maybe Mok's success wasn't entirely undeserved.


There's a genuinely compelling dynamic between these three. A story about a couple of struggling musicians ensnared in the machinations of a decadent, past-his-prime superstar, without all the demons, anthropomorphs, and mumbo-jumbo about "one voice, etc." could have been the basis for a solid movie. A darker outing that doubled down on its post-apocalyptic metropolitan grimness, subtracting all the eighties rock and more conspicuous kids' movie characters and concepts might have done well, too. Heck, Rock & Rule might have been better off, at least from a business standpoint, had it drawn back from all the sleaze, smog, adolescent angst, and satanic imagery, and went ahead full steam as a big-budget, non-Disney family film. But Nelvana crammed it with more contrasting material than it could reasonably contain, and unlike Project A-ko, Rock & Rule doesn't quite succeed at integrating its disparate elements. Rock & Rule's director of photography, Lenora Hume, mused in an interview that the movie ended up being less than the sum of its parts. She's not wrong. The extent to which Rock & Rule's varied components subtract from each other is almost as glaring as the inconsistency between its dated futurisms and the undecayed excellence of its animation.

But I like it anyway, warts and all. It's too freakishly ambitious not to admire, and however clumsily its pieces fit together, the proficiency with which they were made is obvious. Rock & Rule is a cartoon for cartoon connoisseurs, best viewed as an unaccountable artifact from the last days of Western animation's dark age, or as a fossil of a prodigious evolutionary dead end. It also gave me another reason to despise The Care Bears Movie.

  

2 comments:

  1. Never heard of this, even as an animation aficionado. Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course! Do check it out if you get a chance.

      Delete