Rock & Rule is another in a small batch of experimental animated productions from North America in the Seventies and Eighties, almost all of which met with commercial failure but gathered a thriving cult following. What’s most disappointing about Rock & Rule is that the movie just isn’t very good. It looks terrific—it was made with cutting-edge technique at its time—but the story’s an arbitrary muddle, and the most likeable things about it are the throwaway touches.
Rock & Rule takes place long after some kind of holocaust has devastated the planet, and a new race of humans descended from animals have taken over. This is less interesting than it sounds, as it’s basically an excuse for the character designers to create a loosely Disney-fied cast. A legendary rock star named Mok (think Mick Jagger crossbred with Iggy Pop, the latter of whom contributed songs to the movie) has been working on a secret project that involves using a singer’s voice to unlock a doorway to another dimension. Mok’s own voice won’t do the trick, so he sets off in search of a better one. (Interesting side note: Rock & Rule takes place after an apocalypse; so did Wizards and Fire & Ice, two other experimental animated productions of the period. Was there something in the water?)
Mok finds his voice in Angel, lead singer in a small-time rock band co-fronted by her boyfriend Omar. Friction runs high within the band, but Angel and Omar do their best to remain close, even when they have strongly opposing ideas about how to run things. The movie doesn’t do a very good job of spelling these things out, though; it’s the sort of insight that has to be reverse-engineered on inference. Mok tricks the ba nd into dropping by his house, whereupon he kidnaps Angel in his zeppelin and heads for the metropolis of Nuke York. There, he will have one last surprise concert, wherein Angel’s voice will be used to unleash untold forces on the world. And as you might imagine, Omar and the rest of the band head off to rescue her.
It sounds interesting enough in the abstract—what movie doesn’t?—but the way it has been put together simply does not work. The problem is not the look and feel of the film, which is excellent, and which deserves its own discussion. It’s not even the disjointed story; a good movie can survive a certain amount of that, too. Somehow, each individual scene has been edited and directed in such a way that it’s next to impossible to discern what the function of the scene is, or who its key characters are. Characterization is also badly muddled: One of the most interesting characters—an eyepatch-wearing female tattoo artist—is relegated to the status of a walk-on. Omar, ostensibly the hero, spends a good deal of the time either absent, moping, or ineffectual. In fact, it’s his two dopey sidekicks who get most of the things done in the story.
It’s a shame how the story behind the making of Rock & Rule is many times more interesting than the film itself. Nelvana Ltd., the Canadian animation house that produced the film, was founded in 1971 by R&R director Clive Smith and associates Patrick Loubert and Michael Hirsh, and garnered a certain amount of fame and attention for producing holiday-themed animated specials. Among their more non-mainstream productions was the animated Meet Boba Fett segment for the Star Wars Holiday Special, which brought them to the attention of producer Ivan Reitman, who wanted them to work on a movie called Heavy Metal. They declined the project and instead turned their attention to a homebrew “dark Disney” story called Drats!
Drats! never came to fruition, but instead mutated into a totally different project called The Devil and Daniel Mouse, a (very) loose adaptation of the Stephen Vincent Benet story. What they really wanted to do was a feature-length version of the same story, in a sense, and that became the seed for Rock & Rule. R&R was to be Nelvana’s big ticket to fame, partly because of its (then-) cutting-edge rock score but also because it was going to be a different kind of animated story: one aimed more at adults than children, and with groundbreaking computer-assisted visual effects.
To fatten up the staff, they hired in a roster of eager young kids fresh from local Sheridan College (near Toronto), and plunged into production without much of a clear idea of what kind of story they were telling, or to what end. “We kind of made it up as we went along,” Smith admitted, “and jumping from a half-hour show to a feature film was much bigger than anyone imagined.” Since many of them didn’t have extended families or other obligations, their youthful staff members were able to throw themselves into the project completely.
They needed all the energy the y could get. What started as a lark quickly turned into a chore, and t hen a nightmare: the producers waffled and withheld money; scenes were dropped or re-done entirely; characters redesigned and re-shot even after they were declared finished; the entire studio had to move to new facilities halfway through production; one deadline after another was blown. Worst of all, MGM/UA, the American distribution company, experienced a disaster of its own in the form of Heaven’s Gate, and the advertising budgets for a great many films under its wing were slashed to nothing—including, predictably, Rock & Rule.
When the film finally did come out on April 14, 1983, it completely failed to find an audience and played to mostly empty theaters before being relegated to infrequent showings on cable TV and the occasional art-house showing. It also came back to life on VHS and LaserDisc, although still next to impossible to find in either format. The staff Nelvana had added to create the film got dumped, but many of the people involved survived to move on to better things—including Nelvana itself, which became a key player in the North American animation industry. Co-writer John Halfpenny, for instance, later worked on the Beetlejuice animated series; Loubert and Smith have since produced the animated Redwall, Free Willy, and dozens of other TV shows.
If the movie doesn’t really work as entertainment, it at least partly succeeds as a work of animation art. Smith and his cronies were able to create a signature appearance for the film that hasn’t been copied or emulated since—not Disney, not anime, not Bakshi, but an interesting cross-mutation of all of the above.. Some of the imagery was done with what for the time was groundbreaking animation techniques: for instance, using models in the multiplane rig instead of just paintings, as with one of the cityscapes. There are times when the imagery is almost too dark to make out coherently—the first shots of Nuke York, for instance, are an indecipherable murk—but when it does work, it’s vibrant and brilliant.
The most striking visual effects were accomplished by using a technique called controlled streak photography, where a computer-controlled camera zooms in on or moves past backlit artwork to create eerie, glowing effects. This was the same trick used to create the “light trip” effects in 2001, and was responsible for all those glittery ABC-TV bumpers during the Seventies and Eighties. Such work has since been more or less replaced by computer graphics, but it has a warm “analog” feel of its own that CGI can’t duplicate—and Rock & Rule was the first film to combine such effects with hand-drawn multiplane animation, too. (Considering that the computer in question used to control the camera was about the size of a small house, it’s doubly impressive.)
The real tragedy of Rock & Rule is not simply that it didn’t get the recognition it deserved, but that it could have been so many times better if the people involved had mustered the patience to nail everything down beforehand. Unfortunately, the same non-conformist streak that compelled them to take on the project in the first place also made them eschew the hassle o f creating a full screenplay, and the anarchic but limited results are proof of that.
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