Saturday, 4 October 2014

Rock & Rule: Canada's Animated Masterpiece

 (This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings)

For much of its history Canada has not been known for its animated feature films. In fact, the first Canadian animated feature would not be released until 1956: the French language movie Le Village enchanté.  While the 1981 feature film Heavy Metal was technically produced in Canada, it was truly an international production. It utilised animators as far afield as Los Angeles and London, and among the companies that produced it was the United States' Columbia Pictures. Canada would have to wait until 1983 for its first English language animated feature film produced entirely in Canada. And there are many who would argue that particular film was well worth the wait. It was the cult film Rock & Rule, now regarded by many as a classic in animation.

Rock & Rule was produced by the Canadian animation company Nelvana. Nelvana was founded in 1971 by Michael Hirsch, Patrick Loubert, and Clive A. Smith. Messrs. Hirsch and Loubert had met while attending York University and would co-author a book on the Canadian comic books of the World War II era, The Great Canadian Comic Books. In fact, Nelvana took its name from Canada's first superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights. Clive A. Smith started working as an animator for British animation firm Halas and Batchelor in 1964. While there he worked on such animated television series as The Beatles and the Sixties incarnation of The Lone Ranger. He worked as a freelancer on the 1968 British animated feature Yellow Submarine before migrating to Canada in 1967. Once in Canada he worked in commercials, as well as on cartoon shorts with animators Al Guest and Vladimir Goetzleman.

Nelvana got its start in animation creating animated filler material for the CBC. They would go on to create a series of shorts called Small Star Cinema, which combined animation and live action for the network. It was in 1974 that they produced their first television special, Christmas Two Step. Christmas Two Step would be followed by yet more animated specials, including A Cosmic Christmas (1977), The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), Intergalactic Thanksgiving or Please Don't Eat the Planet (1979), and yet others. Among Nelvana's most notable work from this period was a a ten minute segment entitled "The Faithful Wookie" for the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special that aired in 1978. "The Faithful Wookie" would be historic for introducing bounty hunter Boba Fett, two years before he appeared in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

It was one of Nelvana's television specials, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, that would provide the inspiration for Rock & Rule. The Devil and Daniel Mouse was based very loosely on Stephen Vincent Benét's short story The Devil and Daniel Webster. It centred on a pair of struggling folk musicians (who also happen to be mice), Daniel and Jan. When Jan sells her soul to the Devil for success as a rock star, it is up to Daniel to figure out a way to get the Devil to release her from her contract. The songs in the special were written by John Sebastian (formerly of The Lovin' Spoonful) and performed by John Sebastian and Laurel Runn. The success of The Devil and Daniel Mouse led Nelvana to embark on their first full length, theatrical movie in 1979. Originally entitled Drats!, the film was meant to be a rock 'n' roll fantasy aimed at children, not unlike The Devil and Daniel Mouse.

It would be because of Drats! that Nelvana would decline producer Ivan Reitman's offer to work on the feature film Heavy Metal (1981). As it was, Drats! would evolve into something just a little closer to Mr. Reitman's decidedly adult animated feature than the children's movie Nelvana had originally intended. Ultimately the film would touch upon such adult themes as drug use, diabolism, profanity, and mild sexuality. And while the film's characters would still be animals, they were dogs, cats, and rats who had mutated into something approaching human beings in the wake of a nuclear war centuries ago. If Rock & Rule (as it was renamed) was not quite as adult in content as Heavy Metal would be (there is no full nudity or overt sex in the film), it certainly was no longer a children's movie.

Rock & Rule centred on a small-time rock band consisting of Omar, Angel, Dizzy, and Stretch who perform at local venues in their hometown of Ohmtown. Unfortunately  for the group, legendary rock star Mok is searching for a very special voice capable of unleashing a demonic being from another dimension. And, unfortunately for the band, that voice belongs to Angel. The characters of Rock & Rule were largely designed after performers who provided music for the film. Omar, Dizzy, and Stretch resemble Robin Zander, Bun E. Carlos, and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, while Angel resembles Deborah Harry of Blondie. Mok seems like an amalgamation of Mick Jagger and David Bowie (with voice actor Don Francks sounding a lot like Vincent Price), although his songs are provided by Lou Reed. The songs on Rock & Rule were provided by Cheap Trick; Deborah Harry; Lou Reed; Earth, Wind & Fire; Melleny Brown; and Iggy Pop.

Ultimately Rock & Rule proved to be a formidable undertaking for Nelvana. The budget rose to $8 million and over 300 animators worked on the film. In the end it would take three years to complete. It was in May 1982 that MGM/UA acquired the distribution rights for the film. Unfortunately, MGM/UA would not make things any easier for Nelvana. MGM/UA insisted that Omar's voice, Greg Salata, be redubbed by the better known Paul Le Mat. They also changed at least one line of Omar's dialogue. MGM/UA insisted on trimming a few scenes in the film as well. The studio even insisted on changing the film's title, from the more evocative Rock & Rule to the more generic Ring of Power (which had absolutely nothing to do with the movie).

Things would only go from bad to worse for Nelvana and Rock & Rule. In the early Eighties MGM/UA was in a period of flux and it was to Nelvana's misfortune that there was a shake up at the studio before Rock & Rule could be released. Sadly, the new people in charge at MGM/UA were not particularly enthusiastic about Rock & Rule. Because of this Rock & Rule never saw a wide release. The film premiered in the United States in test screenings in Boston, Massachusetts on 14 April 1983 (possibly under the title Ring of Power).  Done with little fanfare, the film played to largely empty houses. Rock & Rule played at film festivals under its original title, such as one in Los Angeles in 1984 and one in Helsinki, Finland on 16 May 1986.  It made its debut in New York City on 5 August 1985 under its original title of Rock & Rule at the Thalia Theatre, where it was shown on a double bill with "Futuropolis" (1984).

Given Rock & Rule received practically no support from MGM/UA, it should come as no surprise that there was nothing in the way of merchandising for the movie. Despite the fact that music featured prominently in the movie and the film featured songs by such acts as Cheap Trick and Deborah Harry, a soundtrack album was never released. Cheap Trick's contributions to Rock & Rule ("Born to Raise Hell", “I'm the Man", and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”) would eventually appear on the box set Sex, America, Cheap Trick released in 1996. Iggy Pop's contribution to the film, "Pain & Suffering", was included as a bonus track on the 1991 reissue of his album Zombie Birdhouse. While there was never an official Rock & Rule soundtrack album, the film would receive a comic book adaptation published by Marvel Comics. The adaptation appeared in Marvel Super Special #25, 1983, complete with actual photos from the film and its production. 

Ultimately the failure of Rock & Rule at the box office very nearly bankrupted Nelvana. The company found itself deeply in debt with no money coming in. Fortunately Nelvana's CEO Michael Hirsh was able to work out deals for work in television. Ultimately Nelvana was able to pay off its debts and become profitable once more through work on TV series ranging from Inspector Gadget to Strawberry Shortcake to The Care Bears. In fact, Nelvana's second feature film would be The Care Bears Movie (1985), which proved more successful at the box office than Rock & Rule. Eventually Nelvana became the top animation house in Canada.

While Rock & Rule disappeared very swiftly from theatres in the Eighties. the film found new life on television. Rock & Rule made its television debut in Canada on the CBC on 14 March 1985. Over the years the CBC would show it several more times. About 1988 the CBC started showing the Canadian version of Rock & Rule, which included a few expanded scenes as well as Greg Salata as the voice of Omar. In the United States such premium channels as HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime showed the American version of Rock & Rule repeatedly. It would later air on the basic cable channels TBS and TNT. In 1984 MGM released Rock & Rule on VHS and in 1986 they released it on Laserdisc. While neither the VHS tape nor the Laserdisc remained in print for long, bootleg copies were sold at animation and comics conventions. For many years people could write Nelvana and the studio would send them a video copy of the film for $80.

Through repeated showings on television in both Canada and the United States, as well as the various video copies of the film floating around (both legitimate and bootleg), Rock & Rule was able to develop a sizeable cult following. When Rock & Rule played at the Ottawa International Animation Festival in 1996 it was to an audience of over 300 people. It was on 7 June 2006 that Unearthed Films released Rock & Rule on DVD in both a 2-disc Collector's Edition and a single disc edition. On 28 September 2010 Unearthed Films released Rock & Rule on Blu-Ray in a 25th Anniversary Edition.

While Rock & Rule never received a proper theatrical release, the film would prove important beyond its status as the first English language animated feature produced entirely in Canada. Indeed, while Rock & Rule was a traditional, cel animation feature, it was also the among the first animated feature films to employ computer graphics. That having been said, only a very few images in the film were generated by computer (a prime example being Mok's holographic music videos).

It must also be pointed out that many who worked on Rock & Rule would go on to other important projects. Several of the film's crew would go on to work on some of Nelvana's better known television shows, including Inspector Gadget, Star Wars: Droids, Star Wars: Ewoks, and Babar. Roger Allers, who worked as an animator on Rock & Rule, would direct both The Lion King (1994) and Open Season (2006). Frank Nissen, who worked as the principal character designer on Rock & Rule, would go on to work on the Disney features Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), and Treasure Planet (2002). Tom Sito, who worked as an animator on Rock & Rule, would work on such feature films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992).

For much of its history Rock & Rule would remain a cult film known primarily to fans of animation. Even today odds are good that most people have never heard of the film.  That having been said, after years of being aired on television and particularly after being released on DVD and Blu-Ray, it would seem Rock & Rule has entered the mainstream. What is more, its reputation seems to have grown over the years. The book 100 Animated Feature Films by Andrew Osmond (one of the "Screen Guides" series), published in 2011,  includes an entry for Rock & Rule, where it is largely spoken of positively. At the web site Rotten Tomatoes, Rock & Rule has an audience score of 72%,, higher than its contemporary Heavy Metal (1981).  At IMDB the film has a rating of 6.9 out of 10, a fairly high rating for that site (and one higher than many Disney films). While for decades Rock & Rule remained in obscurity, today it is actually fairly well known, not only among animation fans, but film buffs in general. Indeed, for many Rock & Rule has achieved what may have been unthinkable in 1983--it has become regarded as a classic.


Kristina Dijan said...

Fascinating story of a film and important chapter for Canada and the Nelvana company, who remain best known for other toons, but really deserve a lot of recognition for this movie. Hard to believe what a missed opportunity it was to not have a soundtrack album! Thanks for bringing your extensive knowledge to this part of movie/animation history.

Silver Screenings said...

I agree with Kristina. This is a fascinating story, and one that would make an interesting movie in its own right. The MGM-meddling-shakeup alone would be an interesting (albeit frustrating) movie.

I've been looking forward to reading your post ever since you originally signed up for the blogathon, and you did not disappoint. Thanks for adding "Rock and Rule" to the blogathon!

Mike Perry said...

Wonderful job about a film and story I really knew nothing about. Great contribution.