It’s that time again, RPM-people, where I dip a retro-futuristic toe into the Pop Culture Schlock archive hoping to find something that will get your nostalgia nubs tingling and have you rushing to the secondary market seller of your choice, PayPal log-in details set to stun.
It’s the cavernous physical media section of the archive that I am plundering on this fine day, fingering a forgotten Eighties flick (that’s if you even knew of it in the first place!) that is more than deserving of the Cult Classic status that appeared desperately out of its reach as the film fell between the cinematic cracks, despite housing exclusive output from hit parade hot properties like Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick, and, erm, Earth, Wind & Fire… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
1983’s Rock & Rule was the first fully animated feature film produced entirely in Canada. Nelvana, the studio behind it, was founded in 1971 and had reached for the pop culture skies several years later when it contributed to 1978’s much-maligned (long-forgotten if Lucasfilm could have its way) Star Wars Holiday Special; the studio creating the ten-minute animated segment that famously featured the first appearance of Boba Fett, the galaxy’s most-feared bounty hunter (well, until we found out that he was cloned from that bloke off of Shortland Street, at least).
Nelvana’s animators were ballpoints-deep in developing an animated feature entitled Drats! when they were approached by producer Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Twins) to work on a feature-length movie based on the classic magazine, Heavy Metal. Nelvana nixed the idea in favour of producing its own title. Heavy Metal, the movie, eventually released in 1981, utilised the services of several different animation houses, took around twenty million dollars at the box office, and became a cult classic. Them’s the breaks.
Drats! toiled through a development hell of sorts; originally intended as a more child-friendly Grimm’s fairy tale-like opus, the project was subject to countless changes, from tone to title. Now called Rock & Rule, the project dashed into production without a completed screenplay. Re-writes abounded, characters were changed long after their original footage was completed, the studio had to move location part-way through production, investment dried up, and the production sailed past every deadline. At least Nelvana had the might of MGM/UA behind them. Well, not quite. Boardroom musical chairs at MGM/UA resulted in the suits who had fallen for the animated project being hung out to dry and new suitors, if you could call them that, were less than enamoured with the work as a whole. Cuts were demanded, voice actors replaced, the title changed to Ring Of Power, resulting in the movie being dead on arrival – buried by a studio before it even had a chance to find its audience upon eventual release in 1983. But why? Was it really that bad?
Watching Rock & Rule now it’s easy to find fault – the post-apocalyptic tone is diluted too often by comic relief characters more suited to Saturday morning cartoons, and the cuts demanded (two different versions actually exist; American and Canadian) make for a patchy viewing experience – but, as far from perfect as it is, there is plenty on offer for this forgotten film to warrant rediscovery. It is, however, the rock and roll of Rock & Rule that will be of the greatest interest to RPM readers.
The story in a nutshell: on a post-apocalyptic Earth where the population has mutated from rodents to human form, a legendary super rocker, named Mok, resides in Nuke York and is obsessed with an evil experiment that will bring forth a demon from another dimension. To do this he needs to find an angelic voice to sing a certain combination of notes. Meanwhile, in a seedy club, a fledgling rock band has a keyboard player just finding her voice. Her name? Angel…
Mok was originally to be named ‘Mok Swagger’ until the talent representation of Mick Jagger objected. How did they know at such an early stage of development? Well, the Rolling Stones frontman was considered for the role of Mok (no doubt why the animated character has lips-a-plenty), as were David Bowie, Sting, Michael Jackson, and Tim Curry. Don Francks – who had provided the voice for Boba Fett in the aforementioned Holiday Special animated sequence – was eventually cast as Mok, although the character’s musical sequences were performed by none other than Lou Reed.
Who could provide that angelic voice, though? Well, voice-over veteran Susan Roman was cast as Angel, but the character’s potentially demon-inducing singing voice was provided by Debbie Harry. Add to these that fact that Angel’s bandmate, Omar, had a singing voice provided by Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander, and the one-and-only Iggy Pop voiced the thing from another dimension, and you have a proper rock ‘n’ roll curio almost certain to be missing from many a collection.
‘Angel’s Song’ is, in fact, an early version of the song, ‘Maybe For Sure’, that would appear on Harry’s 1989 solo album, ‘Def, Dumb & Blonde’. This was just one of three songs written by Harry and fellow Blondie founder, Chris Stein, for the movie; the others being ‘Invocation Song’ and ‘Send Love Through’, the version of the latter featured at the climax containing lead vocals by both Debbie Harry and Robin Zander. Zander’s Cheap Trick bandmate, Rick Nielsen, penned three tunes for the movie (‘Born To Raise Hell’, ‘I’m The Man’, and ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’), Lou Reed two (‘Triumph’ and ‘My Name Is Mok’), and Iggy Pop just the one (‘Pain & Suffering’). It’s the Earth, Wind & Fire tune that you want to know about though, right? Well, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ plays out in a neo-disco scene set at Club 666. Now you’re interested!
Arthouse cinemas and film festivals provided the only opportunities to view Rock & Rule after its initial flop at release, aside from a rare mid-eighties airing on Canadian television, where it was promoted as a music special rather than an animated feature. Eventual home video releases on video cassette and laserdisc finally allowed the movie to find something of an audience until, in more recent times, a long-awaited double DVD release presented an anamorphic widescreen version to curious viewers and collectors alike. This digital versatile disc set is now out of print so good luck in finding a copy. I did, and it now resides in the Pop Culture Schlock archive where another curious item lies waiting to be fingered for my next RPM column…
Until then, keep watching the skies!
Author: Gaz Tidey