Nelvana (April 15, 1983), Unearthed (June 7, 2005), 2 discs, 77 mins plus supplements, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $29.99
The evil plans of an aging rocker are challenged by love and the power of music.
The Sweatbox Review:
As the DVD market matures, it has become apparent that more and more companies are willing to seek out those movies that might be considered “cult” titles. Currently, some 1980s cult animation films are getting some DVD love. We recently saw the release of the relatively obscure 1985 animated feature Starchaser, we will soon be seeing a release of Ralph Bakshi’s Fire And Ice from 1983, and the summer of 2005 also saw the release of a superb edition of 1983’s Rock & Rule from the appropriately named Unearthed Films.
Rock & Rule has the distinction of being the very first animated feature that was produced entirely on Canadian soil. (A similar project in some ways came out two years earlier; but Heavy Metal, was a Canadian co-production that utilized animation studios from around the world.) Like Heavy Metal, Rock & Rule attempted to use rock and roll to reach the adult animation market, despite that being a market that was not especially recognized at the time. (Even now, animated films are still marketed primarily to kids, despite a noisy adult fan base.) Rock & Rule was a product of Nelvana, and its British director Clive Smith. Although the inexperience of the studio shows in places, there is no doubt that Rock & Rule managed to take on a unique look that still sets it apart from anything else you have seen.
Development for the film actually began way back in 1978, with the film originally conceived as a kids’ movie to be called Drats. Over time, it evolved into an adult rock and roll fantasy. (The blend of tones is regrettably evident in the final product.) A crew of over 200 toiled on the film, with most of the work done in the single Toronto studio. While the crew was thrilled with the results, MGM/UA was less enamored with the final product, and fulfilled their contract to the least extent they could, resulting in the film flopping. Only a few theaters ever showed it, and it is possible that its greatest audience came from late-night showings on Canadian television. Nevertheless, it did develop a following, and bootleg videos have circulated for a while. Thanks to the new remastered DVD, we can see the film in its best light.
Rock & Rule is set in the future, many years after “The War”. Humans no longer exist, and street animals have mutated instead into humanoid beings that have taken over Man’s cities. Like the denizens of the Disney comic books, some characters are obviously certain animals, while others seem human except for button noses or droopy ears. The film’s action takes place in two cities— Ohmtown, which has a massive power plant, and the metropolis of Nuke York.
An aging super-rocker named Mok has retired to Ohmtown. Mok has a legendary status among the populace, but depending on who you ask Mok seems to be an object of fear, derision, or simple awe. Having already seen his glory days, Mok yearns to create a final performance that will grant him immortality (whether figuratively or literally, I was not certain). As part of his final performance, he plans to release a demon from another dimension. His research has brought him close to this ambition, but the final piece of the puzzle is one special voice that will unlock the door to the other dimension in order to bring the beast to our world.
After a long search, Mok finds the possessor of that voice in Angel, a beautiful aspiring rock and roll singer who is partnered with the slightly less talented Omar. Angel and Omar are discovered auditioning at a nightclub owned by a sleazy (but nearly likable) rat named Mylar. Angel steals the show with her own composition, leading to Omar storming off. Mok follows Angel as she goes after Omar, and Mok sends a goon over to invite Angel to his mansion. By this time, Angel and Omar have made up— with no small amount of passion, I might add. Omar is still jealous, but ends up going to the mansion with Angel, as well as their two band mates, Stretch and Dizzy. While Angel is enamored by the idea of meeting Mok, Omar is clearly less impressed.
At the mansion, we meet Mok’s goon again, along with his two brothers, altogether comprising the roller-skating Schlepper Brothers: Toad, Sleazy, and Zip. Mok separates Angel from her friends, and when she is not fully receptive to his offer to feature her in his next performance, he ends up kidnapping her and taking her to Nuke York for the big show. Her three friends, after being evicted from Mok’s mansion, steal a police car and also head to Nuke York, not believing that Angel went of her own free will.
In Nuke York, Angel escapes with the sole Schlepper sister, Cindy, and together they hit the town. On the way, however, Angel overhears Mok’s true plans and is horrified. At the same time, we learn that the demon, once freed, can also be sent back by “one voice, one heart, one song”. The climax of the movie sees Angel being forced to assist Mok, and the efforts of her friends to save her and prevent Mok’s plan from reaching fruition.
That’s all well and good, but the first time through it doesn’t all make sense. When I learned in the special features that the scripting for the film was done on the run, with no final script ever being in place, I was not surprised. The second time I watched the movie, I understood some of it better, but this happened just as other plot holes became more apparent. Mok’s motivation is not clearly explained in the theatrical cut, leaving one to wonder what he would really have to gain by releasing a demon. A sub-plot concerning a rivalry between Omar and a police officer is under-developed. An extremely important event at 55 minutes happens off-screen, and immediately leads to a change of location. Overall, there is a lack of cohesive narrative structure, but fortunately it never descends into being a mess.
The animation is generally very good. Some live action reference was used to generally good effect. Some of the action does take on a rotoscoped type of look, but never as conspicuously as in some of Bakshi’s works. Mainly, the animators took the reference footage as an assist in developing very dynamic gestures and dancing, while enhancing them via the magic of animation. I must also mention that the character design to this day still looks fresh and interesting, and the special effects work is quite innovative.
Although nothing is too explicit, this is clearly a movie whose anthem is “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”. Certain parts of the female anatomy are given greater attention in the Club 666 scene, as well as the bondage scenes with Angel at the end. Someone is pictured getting to first base in the background action at one point, and there are one or two instances of drug use. This is in contrast to the silliness of the Schlepper Brothers, whose comedy antics are rather juvenile and seem out of place.
The part of the film that stands tall is certainly the music. Songs were written and performed especially for this film, usually sung by the characters themselves. Looking at the roster of talent, one cannot help but be impressed: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry (Angel’s singing voice), Cheap Trick (Robin Zander did Omar’s singing voice)… wow. And it sounds just as great as you would hope. The duet sung at the film’s climax is especially moving and powerful, but every song featured in the film is a winner.
If you can forgive some weak storytelling and an inconsistent tone, Rock & Rule stands as a unique and interesting film that is at times entirely captivating.
Is This Thing Loaded?
For a film that got little love when it first came out, it sure got the star treatment on DVD. This is a wonderful package. On the first disc, director Clive Smith provides an Audio Commentary with plenty of information and no lapses. He is also honest about seeing the film’s shortfalls. He comments on the limited use of CGI in the film, although I was still impressed by it— after all, this was just a year after the Genesis sequence in Star Trek II wowed audiences, and three years before Disney used computers to assist in a scene in The Great Mouse Detective. It was also fascinating to find out that sections that I had assumed were CGI were actually done in other ways. He makes note of where he remembers live action reference being used, but stops short of saying any rotoscoping was done.
The Making Of Rock & Rule (24:27) is a vintage 1983 special, and it also appears on Disc One. All the major musicians (writers and performers) are interviewed, as well as many of the animation artists. Operation of the multiplane camera is shown, as well as much more behind-the-scenes material. Also on Disc One is a group of Character Sketch Studies, with over 200 in total, covering 10 characters. (A counter in the lower right-hand corner lets you know how many you have left to view. Nice.) Restoration Comparisons (1:22) demonstrates how the film looked prior to its remastering, and Special Thanks includes some acknowledgements as well as the DVD credits.
Now, that is all you will have if you only buy the one-disc version of Rock & Rule. The 2-disc Collector’s Edition has additional goodies, though. The main one on Disc 2 is the Alternate Version, which runs one hour and 21 minutes, or four minutes longer than the standard version. This version, also known as the CBC (television) version, includes a different opening text/narrated introduction that thankfully clarifies Mok’s motivation. There is also a different voice for Omar (the theatrical distributor didn’t like Greg Salata), and some altered scenes— including a different final fate for one of the characters. There is at least one instance of stronger language, and I have to say I liked the editing of the final scene a little better in this version. The drawback is that the video is in the 4:3 ratio, is not restored, and came from a damaged master since the original was destroyed in a fire. Various analog video problems are quite apparent, giving it a used VHS type of appearance. The sound here is just 2.0.
The alternate version is a nice novelty, but given its problems it would be hard to recommend the 2-disc set only on those grounds. Fortunately, there is another gem here, the television special The Devil And Daniel Mouse (22:16). Think of it as “Rock & Rule for Kids”, but still with plenty of adult appeal. It’s a typical Faustian tale of someone (Daniel’s girlfriend in this case) selling her soul to the devil for fame and fortune. True love, not to mention rock and roll, is needed to beat the devil. This is a wonderful show that I can remember watching at Halloween time on CBC. The spiffy character designs and quality animation, along with some nifty songs, make this a terrific addition to the set. The video is a bit soft and pale, but you really will enjoy this show. As if that were not enough, we also get the vintage special How We Made The Devil And Daniel Mouse (21:09), which is also of surprisingly good quality, more informative than the typical puff piece.
Finishing things off, we have a few more minor special features. The Vintage “Drats” Workprint (12:38) has both rough and more finished animation footage. Rock & Rule Title Workprint (2:45) is of minor interest. The Gallery has a mishmash of still images including various designs, storyboards, and Drats poster concepts. Finally, there is a Trailer for Rock & Rule, as well as for Electric Dragon 8000V.
DVD-ROM: The script is available whether you use a Mac or Windows machine, in Adobe PDF format. This is the actual, original script! Cool.
Well, this is one of the handsomest animation sets around to be sure. We get a slipcased digipack, beautifully smothered in great art from the film. There is also a 12-page booklet that features an introduction and an interview with the film’s creators. Now that is sweet.
Ink And Paint:
While I was very pleased with the video overall, I had mixed feelings about the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. I am sure that a great deal of effort went into bringing the cleanest presentation possible, and certainly there is very little in the way of physical artifacts left to be seen. Dust has been removed, and I noticed no significant print damage.
On the other hand, the resulting image is on the soft side (probably unavoidable), while sections of background colors often “buzz”, perhaps due to over-processing. There is a fine grain apparent as well, although I thought it gave the film a nice textured look. I’m sure that this beats the heck out of those bootlegged copies that have been circulating for years. Compared to what might have been, this is a very nice visual presentation.
The audio quality was deceptive. At first, I thought that there was little rear surround activity in the 5.1 track, until I actively listened for my rear speakers. In fact, there is a lot going on in the rear surrounds, creating an immersive environment that is natural and not gimmicky. There seemed to be a lack of discrete effects between the left and right speakers, but that’s really nitpicking. For a feature that was mixed before Dolby Digital was around, this disc sounds great.
There are no subtitles.
Oh, it has its shortcomings, but Rock & Rule is one of those movies you have just got to see. It has a totally different look and sensibility, done by a group of very talented animators. The inexperience of the studio in producing long-form animation meant that the story was never fully developed before animation was being worked on, and it shows; but the vitality and enthusiasm they had truly shines through. What the film lacks in focus, it makes up for in dynamic animation and powerful imagery— not to mention some rockin’ music. And let us not forget that Angel is possibly the very sexiest heroine in the history of animated films! Unearthed Films has done an exemplary job of bringing this film out on DVD, with a classy package, meaty special features, and the bonus of the wonderful The Devil And Daniel Mouse. If you are at all curious about this release, I heartily encourage you to check it out.