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ROCK & RULE (1983)
Director: Clive A. Smith
Unearthed Films

Thanks to cartoonist R. Crumb and filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, the 1970s and 1980s saw the release of several animated films which were aimed at adult audiences, a rarity considering that cartoon films were synonymous with Disney and little else. Movies like FRITZ THE CAT, AMERICAN POP, HEAVY METAL and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are regarded as classics of the genre and still hold strong cult audiences today. Lost in the shuffle was a Canadian-shot feature featuring rock music by popular artists of the day and an intriguing premise. ROCK & RULE was mishandled from the get-go by distributor MGM and died a slow death at the box office before finding an appreciative audience on video. Unearthed Films managed to license the film and has really outdone themselves with this amazing two-disc special edition set! Fans of the film will have lots to be happy about, and newcomers should find a new cult item to fall in love with. The film has been released in a single-disc Special Edition and a double-disc Collector's Edition. This review will discuss the CE, and seriously, why settle for an appetizer when the main course is so much more rewarding?

Omar and Angel are young lovers whose rock band performs in a sleazy bar until villainous washed-up rocker Mok takes an interest in the beautiful girl and her voice. Omar and band members Dizzy and Stretch become suspicious of Mok's intentions, especially when he has them drugged while he whisks off Angel to Nuke York! It turns out that Mok believes Angel has the voice capable of opening a gate to another dimension, containing a vicious demon with destruction on the brain. The trio of musicians takes off on a three-day trek to save Angel and fight Mok and his forces of evil.

Not the strongest story in the world, ROCK & RULE is essentially a rock version of the glitzy disco saga THE APPLE, produced three years earlier by The Cannon Group (the ending is even similar). Instead of the Satanic figure of Mr. Boogalow, we are introduced to the villain Mok, resembling a blended mix of Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop and David Bowie! And in place of the folkie singers Alphie and Bibi, rockers Omar and Angel are a much more likable couple, played by AMERICAN GRAFFITI star Paul Le Mat and regular cartoon voice Susan Roman (who was also in Cronenberg's RABID!). Added for comic relief are sidekicks Stretch and Dizzy, Mok's henchmen brothers Toad, Zip and Sleazy, and their sister Cindy, all of whom are entertaining characters with great vocal work bringing them to life. SCTV comedienne Catherine O'Hara is unrecognizable as the voice of tattoo artist Aunt Edith. But the best vocal work is by Don Francks as Mok; his silky evil voice is reminiscent of Basil Rathbone or a lisp-less Boris Karloff, but also with the intonations of Bowie and Jagger, which is perfect for the character.

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The film is very dark, taking place in a post-apocalyptic future where man is extinct and the remaining rodents and animals have taken on human characteristics. The metropolis setting is filled with looming skyscrapers, dank alleyways, dark shadows and sinister characters, and the sky is perpetually filled with clouds and thunderstorms, adding to the appropriately adult feel of the project. There are some great trippy animated sequences, such as a butterfly landing in Angel's hands and its body speaks with the face of Mok and a flashy disco scene, and special mention must go to the Uncle Mikey TV sequence, but compared to today's computer-generated cartoons, this isn't the most astonishing animation you're going to see. By hand-drawn standards, it looks amateurish in some spots, but is still a joy to watch and displays a genuine array of talent behind-the-scenes.

While fans of new wave and punk have held the film's soundtrack in high regard as a holy grail (most of it was never released on vinyl or CD and still remains unavailable), the music is a mixed bag. Debbie Harry's song in particular is quite bland, yet somehow it entrances Mok and awakens the demon from its slumber. If budget wasn't an obstacle, a better choice would have been Pat Benetar or Joan Jett as a rocker chick. That said, the song sounds great as a duet between Debbie and Robin Zander. Cheap Trick contributes a good song as the opening song by Omar at their bar performance, and Lou Reed is very good as the singing voice of Mok. An Earth, Wind and Fire song is used splendidly during the disco scene as well, and Iggy Pop contributes one song, "Pain and Suffering," during the finale.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of ROCK & RULE is fairly grainy in several sequences, but for the most part is quite good-looking. Colors are balanced and have not faded with time, blacks are deep, and the film has definitely not looked better. I doubt it looked this good during its limited theatrical run! The 5.1 audio mix is exceptionally strong, with every song, every word of dialogue, and every sound effect coming through loud and clear! Even more so than most big studio DVD releases!

Disc 1 features a great handful of supplements, beginning with a 25-minute vintage documentary "The Making of ROCK & RULE." Featuring interviews with Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, songwriter/Blondie member Chris Stein, songwriter/Earth, Wind and Fire member Maurice White, screenwriter Patrick Loubert, producer Michael Hirsh, animators Anne Marie Bardwell, Frank Nissen, Robin Budd, Gian Celestri, Tom Sito, and Chuck Gammage, director of animated special effects Keith Ingham, director of photography Lenora Hume, technical expert Dennis Brown, and composer Patricia Cullen, this looks to have been made as a TV special as it fades in and out of black where commercials breaks would fit in. Whether it aired is questionable, considering the film's never finding an audience at the time of its creation. Lots of footage of the animators and artists drawing concept art, painting cells, the singers recording the soundtrack music, and peeks into the sweeping camerawork makes this a mouthwatering look into the creative process behind the film. Everyone seems dedicated to making this the best film they can produce, and it shows in the finished product. Debbie Harry makes a sad remark that she hopes the soundtrack gets released as an album, she thinks so highly of it; to date there has been no soundtrack CD but hopefully the DVD release will invite one. The extra which will prove most enticing is probably the feature-length audio commentary by director Clive Smith! Smith never runs out of anecdotes and memories of the production, including the original title and character designs, obtaining the various musical artists for the film's soundtrack, and the film's genesis from 1978 as "Drats!" for TV to the three-year production which resulted in the theatrical version of ROCK & RULE. He also takes time to discuss the troubled distribution history of the film and kicks off the commentary by saying the film "should have made millions." Indeed, it should have. Extensive character sketch galleries follow the development of the appearances of Omar, Angel, Stretch, Dizzy, Mok, The Schlepper Brothers (and sister Cindy), Mylar the sleazy bar MC, Quadhole, and The Demon. A restoration comparison caps off the disc (featuring the original title card, RING OF WORSHIP), and it's pretty astonishing how much color correction and dirt and debris cleansing the feature went through to look good!

Disc 2 is a real treat because it contains a complete full-length alternate version of the film!! Produced for the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), the source for this version is a fullscreen video element (the negatives for both versions were reportedly destroyed in a fire), so the quality is very soft, features tracking lines and drop-out, and the audio is not as bombastic as one would hope. But it's worth having this alternate version for several reasons: Omar is voiced by another actor, Gregory Salata; the background vocals during Cheap Trick's opening song are stronger and more understandable; there is an alternate word crawl/narration at the start of the film; and there is a completely different ending! It's great to have this for reference sake and to also see what the rental videos have looked like over the years in comparison to the great transfer on Disc 1.

Continuing through Disc 2, check out "The Devil and Daniel Mouse," the original 27-minute short which influenced the production of ROCK & RULE. The storyline is pretty much the same, except this time the female lead is enticed to sell her soul to become a rock star. And with this short, it seems this was a direct influence on THE APPLE rather than vice versa. The two leads are folk rock singers a la Alphie and Bibi and hell, the lady even plays the same instrument! It's definitely aimed at a kiddie audience, with cutesy voices and a goofier sense of humor. Accompanying the short is another vintage making-of, the 21-minute "How We Made The Devil and Daniel Mouse," which again looks to be have been made for TV. We see the writers and producers develop the short, the animators fleshing out the characters and drawing them onto cells, matching the actors' voices to the animation, working on storyboards, and the production of the musical soundtrack. The big surprise: John Sebastian of The Lovin' Spoonful is shown recording his male vocals for Daniel's character! A "Drats!" workprint is in bad shape, but is interesting because it features unrealized animation in-between finished cell animation. Some very psychedelic shots are shown only in sketch form, but this is still a fascinating supplement to imagine what could have been the finale of the film. Another workprint is present for the title sequence, with yellow lettering instead of red and the opening introductory text appearing as slides rather than a rolling crawl and with no narration. A mammoth gallery section includes sketches from "The Devil and Daniel Mouse," Aunt Edith's tattoo parlor in ROCK & RULE, original poster concepts, various alternative designs for the settings of the film, blueprints for the "Drats!" TV concept, gag drawings of the characters, unrelated sketches and drawings by artist Dan Haskett, a gaggle of random doodlings by the production team, and a full 8-piece lobby card set. The film's original theatrical trailer is buried near the end of this platter, but is pretty well-done and I'm surprised the film didn't do better based upon it. I think the film would have done very well today if it was released. An unrelated trailer for ELECTRIC DRAGON 8000 VOLTS is for an upcoming Unearthed Films release and looks pretty intriguing. Finishing off this incredible collection is the complete original screenplay in DVD-ROM form.

The packaging is simply gorgeous, containing a 10-page booklet with an appreciative essay by Peter Roe and informative interviews conducted by Emru Townsend with director Clive Smith, animators Anne Marie Bardwell and Robin Budd, animator/voice artist Greg Duffell, screenwriter/voice artist John Halfpenny, director of photography Lenora Hume, graphic artist Laura Sheperd, and assistant editor Rob Kirkpatrick! Sprinkled throughout the text are unique character sketches and art which were never used in the final product.

There is no question that this is the ultimate animated film collector's edition package! Even more noteworthy films such as the Bakshi classics haven't received such lavish treatment from the big studios who own them, so it's pretty amazing that Unearthed Films put together such a wonderful set for this small wonder of a film. Highest recommendation possible for this undiscovered gem! (Casey Scott)