Animator Ralph Bakshi on Why ‘American Pop’ Ended With a Lame Bob Seger Song

Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Bakshi

For more than 40 years, underground animator Ralph Bakshi changed the rules of animation. His 1972 feature debut, Fritz the Cat, was the first animated film to receive an X rating. His fierce polemic against racism, Coonskin, caused Al Sharpton to protest the film's New York premiere. Now he’s the subject of Unfiltered, a new book and ongoing exhibition running at the Animazing Gallery through May 28. Vulture talked with Bakshi about his films and his mass-market protégé Thomas Kinkade.

You mentored Ren and Stimpy's John Kricfalusi. But we can never forgive you for giving Thomas Kinkade his big break.
That son of a bitch! Kinkade was the coolest. If Kinkade wasn't a painter, he'd be one of those cult leaders. Kinkade came into my office with James Gurney when I was looking for background artists [for Fire and Ice]. He's a good painter, and he did a spiel. He made all these deals. How he went out and did what he did is beyond my understanding now. He's very, very talented, and he’s very, very much of a hustler. Those two things are in conflict. Is he talented? Oh yeah. Will he paint anything to make money? Oh yeah. Does he have any sort of moralistic view? No. He doesn't care about anything. He's as cheesy as they come.

Speaking of which, I have a question about American Pop. Was Bob Seger's "Night Moves" intended as an anticlimactic conceit?
“Night Moves” sucks! I was furious! It was all wrong. I had a brilliant song in mind, but they just wanted too much money. I forget what it was. I've blocked it out. If I remember, I'll give you a call.

[Ed. note: True to his word, Bakshi telephoned Vulture from a busy street corner less than an hour after our interview, and confessed that the song he originally had in mind was "Freebird."]

I thought it was just some sick joke on your part.
Well, that's an interesting thought. I'll be happy to tell any reviewer that.

Do you have a particular aversion to orchestral music? I know that for your version of Lord of the Rings, you were at one point considering Led Zeppelin.
Not at one point. I was thinking all the way. I hate Leonard Rosenman's music in Lord of the Rings. I thought it was clichéd. Gregorian chants — what else is new? I wanted Led Zeppelin because they were right for the film. The film would have been seen by every hippie in the country. I was one of them. The Lord of the Rings was for us in the East Village. It wasn't for anybody uptown.

Where were you getting your inspiration for your films in those days?
In those days, I didn't care where I got my inspiration. I wasn't so precious about it. I was living a life in the Village and running around drinking and fucking around. I love art. Art says everything. So I was endlessly looking at visuals in those days. Especially photography. I loved the New York school of photography. Arbus. Weegee. Newspapers. Take a whole photograph that Eisenstein or somebody did in the shtetl of Europe. If you look at these photographs and you go to those corners, you'll see something amazing. A bottle in a window. A face distorted. I look at it and I try to get at the little windows of stuff.

I never went to college, so it was a question of me finding my own instructors and books. It's a very strange process I went through. It was just the work I thought I had to do. There were no lightbulbs going over my head saying, This is right, this is wrong. When I saw Heavy Traffic, I fell down. Did I say that? Did I have my mother say that to me? It was as big a shock to me as it was to people seeing it for the first time. When my mother lifted her skirt to me in the ballroom, I said, “I can't believe I did that!”

Even though you’d given yourself complete and unfettered freedom?
It felt right at the time. But when it came back to me on the screen, it knocked me out of my chair. —Edward Champion