Monday, October 17, 2005

Rock & Rule

It was in the early Eighties, when I was still a member of Cheap Trick International (the band's fan club), that I learned that Cheap Trick was providing some of the songs for the soundtrack of an animated feature (besides Heavy Metal). That movie was Rock & Rule. I waited patiently for it to arrive at the local theatres, but it never did. Fortunately, I did catch it on HBO around 1984. Indeed, at that time the premium channels seemed to show it almost daily. Unfortunately, after the mid-Eighties, I never saw Rock & Rule again. At least until now. Released on VHS in the Eighties, Rock & Rule has finally been released on DVD by Unearthed Films.

The origins of Rock & Rule go back to 1971 when Mark Hirsch, Patrick Loubert, and Clive Smith formed the animation studio Nelvana in Canada. The studio produced several holiday specials and even provided a ten minute animated segment featuring Boba Fett for George Lucas's Star Wars Thanksgiving special. Producer Ivan Reitman even approached them about animating Heavy Metal. They turned him down in favour of their own project, a feature film initially titled Drats.

Originally, Drats was geared towards a younger audience and would have featured a softer approach. But as the project evolved, it took on more mature themes and more adult content. Quite simply, it became Rock 'n' Rule. Unfortunately, things did not run smoothly for Nelvana's dream of producing an animated feature film. It took three long years for the project to be finished. In that time, the budget grew out of proportion and its distributer in the United States, MGM/UA, began to make their voice known with regards to the movie. The voice of the hero, Omar, would be completely redubbed. Cuts were made to the film. At one point the movie was even renamed Ring of Power (a rather generic name that really has nothing to do with Rock & Rule as we know it).

It was on April 14, 1983 that Rock & Rule finally appeared in theatres in the United States. Released in Boston with no fanfare, the film played to nearly empty houses. It soon disappeared, never receiving a wide release. Fortunately, Rock & Rule was saved by both television and home video. As I mentioned earlier, it was shown a good deal in the mid-Eighties by premium channels such as HBO. And in its homeland of Canada, it was even shown on the CBC. Rock & Rule was released on VHS in 1984 and laserdisc in 1986. Slowly but surely it gained a following. It was probably a fait accompli that it would be eventually released on DVD.

Although it has a loyal, cult following, Rock & Rule is not a perfect film. Perhaps its greatest shortcoming is its story, which almost seems as if was pieced together like patchwork. And sometimes the classic, Warner Brothers style humour seems out of place alongside the darker themes of the movie. But utlimately, Rock & Rule succeeds where other animated films have failed.

Much of this is due to the strength of its characters. The voices of the characters endowed them with personalities all their own, a task further helped by the animators who gave each character his or her own distinctive body language. It perhaps helped that the characters were voiced by some of the most talented actors in Canada at the time. Paul LeMat gave voice to the hero, Omar, while Don Francks provided the voice for the villain of the piece, Mok. Indeed, Mok is one of the great animated screen villains of all time. Flamboyant, egomaniacal, totally self centred, Mok comes off like a bizarre cross between Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Jimmy Page--one part rock star, one part sorcerer. As to the heroine, Angel, she is no mere damsel in distress, but a character with a personality all her own.

Rock & Rule also boasts some truly great animation. There are some truly fantastic images in the film, from Mok's blimp to the skyline of Nuke York (the warped, future version of New York in the film). In some respects the animation in Rock & Rule is truly groundbreaking. Indeed, it was one of the earliest animated films to actually make use of CGI. Although very primitive by today's standards, it is an impressive accomplishment for its era.

From the beginning, it was planned for music to play a large role in the movie. Some of the greatest artists of the late Seventies and early Eighties lent their talents to Rock & Rule. Cheap Trick provided the music for Omar's songs (including one of their best songs ever, "Born to Raise Hell"). Deborah Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie provided the music for the heroine Angel's songs. Lou Reed was a perfect choice to write and perform Mok's songs. The soundtrack also includes songs by Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Iggy Pop.

As I said earlier, Rock & Rule is not a perfect movie. It does have its faults. But those faults are made up by the sheer energy, the sheer talent, that clearly went into the making of the movie. For me it is a film that is very easy to love. Even after having not seen for it for literally years, I could still quote dialogue from the movie. If you love animation and you love the music of the early Eighties, then you must see Rock & Rule.

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