Rock & Rule (1983)



Clive A. Smith

Don Francks (Mox), Paul Le Mat (Omar – US version), Gregory Salata (Omar – Canadian version), Susan Roman (Angel), Dan Hennessey (Dizzy), Greg Duffell (Stretch), Iggy Pop (Mox’s singing voice), Lou Reed (Mox’s singing voice), Robin Zander (Omar’s singing voice), Debbie Harry (Angel’s singing voice)

Nuclear War

“The War was over… The only survivors were street animals: dogs, cats and rats. From them, a new race of mutants evolved. That was a long time ago… MOK a legendary superocker has retired to OHMTOWN. There his computers work at deciphering an ancient code which would unlock a door between this world and another dimension. Obsessed with his dark experiment, MOK himself searches for the last crucial component- a very special voice.” – Opening narration/text crawl.

There is a certain subsection of animated film that was fairly prominent during the 70s and 80s. Movies of this type are ostensibly for children, but they delve into dark subject matter (or just simply are told in an eerie and foreboding way that children find unsettling) and are thus marketed to adults but lack the pathos and depth that even the most rudimentary of films geared toward adults employ.  Thus, these movies exist as oddities with one foot in both demographics; appealing to both and neither.

These movies tend to cement themselves in the brains of those who see them: for children there’s a feeling that what they’re watching is dangerous and that by seeing it they’re getting away with something.  For adults there’s a nostalgic feeling of childhood’s first experience with cinema that didn’t cater to the comfort of children and the complicated stew of emotions that came with that. Examples of this sub-genre include The Black Cauldron, Watership Down, The Secret of Nimh, the complete works of Don Bluth, most of the works of Ralph Bakshi, and today’s installment Rock & Rule.

If I had to sum up Rock & Rule to someone who had never even heard of it, I would say it’s a mixture of Heavy Metal, Ducktales, Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea, and Fritz the Cat.  If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around that, take comfort in the fact that I am too and I’m the one who made the description.

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Our story takes place in a far off future where mankind has destroyed itself and a race of humanoid animal mutants has risen up and built a technological society which has surpassed our own.  Legendary “superrocker” Mok has discovered an ancient code which allows him to pull an all-powerful demon from another dimension from another universe into our own.  His plan is pretty much “Step 1: Summon all-powerful demon, Step 2:…, Step 3: Profit.”  I realize it’s 2015 and invoking the underpants gnomes is the opposite of clever, but it’s apt.

For Mok to complete his nonsensical plan he needs the perfect vocalist and that’s where our heroes come in.  Omar and Angel are the two leads of a rock and roll band toiling in no-gig purgatory.  One night after a club owner nearly kicks the group off stage, Angel hijacks the performance with her own song which attracts Mok’s attention.  She is the voice he has been looking for and Mok sets in motion a plan to kidnap Angel and force her to summon the demon for… some reason.

There are actually two versions of Rock & Rule: the original Canadian cut (the negative was lost in a fire) and the recut American version.  There are a number of differences between the two versions of the film, but the biggest one is the voice of Omar.

When the film was sent to the studio to be released, the higher-ups didn’t like actor Gregory Salata’s voice work and wanted to get someone with more name recognition, presumably they just gave up as the actor in the US version is Puppetmaster and Death Valley’s Paul Le Mat.  Apparently Omar’s dialogue was toned down a little bit from the Canadian version where he was borderline abusive to more of a sarcastic type (I am told, I have not watched the Canadian cut.)

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The big hook of Rock & Rule is the music, which is provided by one of the most random collection of musical acts I think I have ever seen.  Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and Earth, Wind, and Fire all have songs on the soundtrack (and with the exception of Earth, Wind, and Fire, all of them have musical numbers performed by characters in the film.)  This makes for a weird sort of tone to the film, musically speaking.  This movie always draws comparisons to Heavy Metal, which at least had the decency to feature a soundtrack of heavy metal songs, but it’s a stretch to call some of the songs on Rock & Rule “rock.”

Another unfavorable comparison to Heavy Metal is the target audience.  Heavy Metal is obviously for adults, sophomoric as it may be, but it’s a bit harder to figure out who Rock & Rule is meant for.  The plot is straight out of a Carebears story: nefarious villain targets the most pure-hearted member of a group of friends to join him for his evildoing, aforementioned member refuses to turn on their friends, villain kidnaps member and forces them to help anyway, evil is vanquished with the power of friendship, roll credits.

None of the characters are particularly well fleshed out, there’s no nuance or depth, and the whole production is rather hokey from the ground up; which would be fine if this were marketed to small children but there’s weird sexual asides and at one point there’s a very clear shot of a man getting a tattoo of a very well-endowed topless woman on his arm.   The tone and subject matter are really dark and not child-friendly, especially when the demon shows up.  I’m not saying don’t show this to your kids (for the record my 3-year old thought it was the shit, but he enjoys things that scare him), I’m just saying maybe watch it first to make sure you’re cool with it.

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The animation is what’s commonly celebrated by fans of this movie and that’s apt but it’s also kind of not.  There are times when Rock & Rule looks amazingly slick and polished, there are times when it looks like hammered shit.  There were several different art styles and animation techniques used throughout the film from traditional animation and rotoscoping to computer generated animation and whatever the hell was used to render that Frank Frazetta looking demon from the climax.  At times this blends perfectly, at others it looks painfully amateurish and some characters look better than others, and some just look bad from certain angles.  Nevertheless, the animation is largely deserving of accolades even if it’s a bit too cartoonish to sexualize its female lead as much as it tries to.

Movies like Rock & Rule make me glad I decided to eschew any sort of grading system to these reviews.  I thought this movie was bad and I thought this movie was good, I thought it was cheesy and I thought it was genuinely cool, I found it forgettable and I found it hard to forget.  It loses a lot of momentum in the middle, the voice acting is good at best, the musicians singing for the characters sound absolutely nothing like the actors voicing them, and the ending is all sorts of goofy.  (Though I must admit that singing a demon back to Hell using the power of rock and roll is the good kind of goofy.)  It’s a movie that’s not particularly good but you’ll love it anyway and be unable to get it out of your head later on.

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Rock & Rule is available from amazon instant as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray that are loaded with special features.  The home video versions also contain the original Candian cut of the film (I am told the quality is not so great) as well as the remastered US cut.

“You can’t- You can’t put ‘Jews’ in a crossword puzzle, man.”