Whenever I think of early eighties’ Western Non-Disney animation, my mind goes directly to fantasy. See, starting with the 1980 adaption of The Return of the King you see a small myriad of animated features like Heavy Metal in 1981, The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn in 1982 respectively, and finally Fire & Ice during 1983. Outside of the fact that almost all of these films can be tied back to recognizable directors like Ralph Bakshi or the combined pair of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass, with the exclusion of parts of Heavy Metal, there is very little Science Fiction animation that comes to mind. That was true until I discovered a film released in 1983 called Rock & Rule; thus finally satiating my Science Fiction needs.
Rock & Rule was the first full-length feature film done by Canadian animation house Nelvana, who many might recognize by their familiar neon polar bear that has been part of their logo since the late seventies. With a back catalog ranging from The Adventures of TinTin, The Magic School Bus, and Beetlejuice, to as far in scope as attempting to create an eighties Doctor Who show and being the animation team for the animated segment of The Star Wars Holiday Special. That is right folks; you can thank Nelvana for giving the world its first appearance of Boba Fett (a nod to Nelvana and some elements from Rock & Rule can be seen in reference in the 2D Clone Wars planet Nelvaan). Nelvana co-founder Clive A. Smith directed not only the companies’ first televised program A Cosmic Christmas in 1977, but also Rock & Rule itself. But enough of me being a production history junky; what is Rock & Rule about?
Set in a world were nuclear war has removed all traces of human life from the planet’s surface; animals have mutated to replace the humanoid bipedal walkers of old. This future scape has enough advanced technology to develop hover cars and a populace filled with inhabitants reminiscent of Disney’s A Goofy Movie where people range from almost identical to humans to over exaggerated animals. A legendary rock star by the name of Mok is living in his hometown of Ohmtown where he is researching a way to summon a demon during his final performance, thus imprinting his name in infamy. What Mok needs is a specific voice to summon the demon, so he visits a local nightclub looking for talent.
During this time, the film’s leads Omar (lead singer and guitarist), Angel (second singer and keyboardist), Stretch (bass), and Dizzy (drums) are all backstage waiting to perform to an almost empty venue. The rag-tag members of the band play a track that is obviously there for Omar’s ego stroking, who capitalizes this chance by doing flips on stage and scaring the crowd. After the owner of the club pulls the curtains on them once, a standing ovation brings them back. But this time Angel wants to perform her own song to Omar’s chagrin. On stage again, Omar quickly storms off when he realizes that the entire band is backing up Angel, and Angel is left to sing her own melodic song. Her sweet voice resonates with Mok, who has been in the crowd this entire time listening, believing that he has found the voice he needs for his final performance. As to be expected, Mok’s plan now is to coerce Angel into singing for him using any method possible, and if that leads to having to kidnap her with her band mates left to save her, then so be it.
One of the greatest draws of Rock & Rule is its great rock centric soundtrack. With original tracks created by musicians like Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, and Iggy Pop and with bands like Cheap Trick and Earth, Wind, & Fire, you have an ambitious sound that makes Rock & Rule stand out. Never before have I seen music being used so intertwined with a narrative that made me feel like what I was watching could be viewed as timeless. But hey, this film had me sold with an early use of the synthesizer and never let me go.
Pros: Sports a distinctive and inventive visual style that I wish I could find the room to write about in further detail. The soundtrack is a must listen, not only for the fans of the artists, but for film soundtrack fans in general. Not to reveal too much, but Rock & Rule creates some unexpected and rather interesting plot points.
Cons: The execution of certain scenes has some uneven flow problem which left me confused and scratching my head .The animation is at times noticeably inconsistent. Omar is perhaps one of the most jerkish main characters I have ever seen; I did get used to him and found him endearing, but I bet that will not ring true with other viewers. Jumps between slapstick comedies to obvious drug allegories in a very similar subject matter tug-of-war so commonly seen in Western Animation during this time.
Rock & Rule has for decades had a history of being hard to find (like not in the Netflix catalog hard to find), attributed to a very troubled distribution history*. Thankfully, Unearthed Films released a two-disc Collector’s Edition (I would like to mention the fps (Frames Per Second) magazine excerpt inside as especially neat) years ago that as one would expect is limited to only being sold by Amazon affiliates, but their recent Blu-Ray release is far more available. That form of release should convince you that this is truly a cult film we are talking about; I thought that Rock & Rule would have just been an interesting novelty of Western Animation’s history that I would view once, but I can say without a doubt that Rock & Rule won over my heart and rocked my ears. I highly suggest checking this madness out.
*For those who are might be interested in production history like yours truly, then I suggest checking out the actually informative Wikipedia page; usually I try to avoid sending you guys to Wikipedia, but for this I will make an exception.