Still from 'Heavy Metal'
From its onset, rock'n'roll has pulsated with dynamic imaginations, boundless fluidity, and an infinite palate of creative possibilities with which to capture and communicate ideas and emotions too big, too wild, or too utterly bizarre to be ushered into artistic fruition any other way. Rock has therefore always been in league with cartoons, the one category of filmmaking where literally anything a creator can envision can (and does) get brought to life. Among the very first entities to recognize the inherent appeal of loud tunes and freaky animation to rock devotees was Walt Disney Studios. In 1969, Disney not only re-released its music-driven, proto-psychedelic masterpiece Fantasia, they marketed the film directly to stoners as “The Ultimate Experience” and even released an official blacklight poster.
Since then, other animated undertakings have drawn on proper rock soundtracks to conjure up what's almost become a genre in its own right. So tune in, toon up, and let fly now with the thirteen trippiest, most rock'n'roll cartoons around.
Heavy Metal (1980)
Heavy Metal commingles hard rock, cartoon characters having near hardcore sex, and hard-edged, bong-fumed science fiction into a perfect cosmic storm of vice, volume, and visual splendor. As a result, this instant and very much R-rated classic has now functioned as a midnight movie and home video rite-of-passage for multiple generations. Adapted from the splashy, fleshy fantasy magazine of the same name, Heavy Metal centers on an evil glowing space rock that spins wicked tales of tripped-out derring-do in multiple dimensions. As if that weren’t cool enough, each story is scored by Black Sabbath, Cheap Trick, Blue Öyster Cult, Sammy Hagar, and a boot-stromping array of other early-80s FM-radio longhairs. Remarkably, Heavy Metal still rocks hard, now maybe more than ever. It's also forever reported to be on the precipice of undergoing a high-tech 3D IMAX reboot by a team of all-star directors, including James Cameron, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, and Guillermo Del Toro. Don’t hold your breath waiting for new Heavy Metal, but do hold your smoke as you watch and re-watch (and re-re-rewatch) the original.
Yellow Submarine (1968)
The Beatles’ ultra-mega-mondo psychedelic extravaganza has nothing objectionable for kids to see, per se, but if a closer approximation of a mind-blowing acid trip has ever been captured on film, it’s doubtful anyone ever made it back to sanity to describe it. The Fab Four do embark on the titular vehicle during the film, after they’re charged by Sgt. Pepper himself to travel from the Sea of Time to the Sea of Holes in order to defend Pepperland against the Blue Meanies and their giant flying hand with sharp teeth. Accompanying the lads is a fuzzy clown-faced creature named Jeremy Hillary Boob. Appropriately, the adventures described above are accompanied by many of the most LSD-inflamed numbers in the Beatles songbook, including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “A Day in the Life,” “Baby, You’re a Rich Man,” and, of course, the esteemed nonsensical title number. By the end of the journey, Yellow Submarine packs such a nonstop hallucinatory wallop you may never need acid again—or you may need more of it, immediately.
Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)
Brilliant, riveting, often terrifying animated sequences by fire-brained painter Gerald Scarfe recur throughout director Alan Parker’s mammoth cinematic interpretation of Pink Floyd’s blockbuster 1979 concept album, punctuating this midnight movie staple with a visual vocabulary all its own. Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldolf stars as Pink, a flaming-out arena rock superstar whose ongoing meltdown incorporates brutal fantasies of fascism and a wall that only grows ever huger and more austere. Scarfe’s intermittent cartoons pound home Pink’s inward collapse, oftentimes literally—as in The Wall’s famous imagery of swastika-like crossed hammers marching onward to all-out takeover and destruction, as well as during the film’s climactic scene “The Trial” in which every horror previously covered returns in exquisitely grotesque animated form.
The Great Rock-n-Roll Swindle (1978)
At the apex of 1977 punk, three separate Sex Pistols movies were rushed into preproduction: Who Killed Bambi?, from the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls team of Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert; Julien Temple’s cheeky semi-mockumentary The Great Rock-n-Roll Swindle; and an untitled feature length animated cartoon. Animation test shorts were created for the last of those projects. Alas, rather than become a feature in themselves, they were incorporated into the only film among them to be finalized, the fitfully wonderful, fitfully terrible The Great Rock-n-Roll Swindle. To watch these brash, safety-pin-to-the-face sequences—especially the one set to the Pistols’ abortion anthem “Bodies”—is to really wish that somebody would have finished that cartoon.
Tom Waits for No One (1979)
Animator John Lamb won a Best Animated Short Oscar for Tom Waits for No One, mesmerizing seven-minute cartoon take on the poetically down-and-out gutter glories of hard-luck tunesmith Tom Waits. The short’s creators (Waits included) hoped to spin their work off into a feature-length film; more scenes were even created, but they’ve since been tragically lost to time and lack of outside interest. Still, what remains of Tom Waits for No One is a sad, soulful, joyous treasure, and, in a way, its very incompleteness is perfectly in keeping with the rough aesthetics and hardscrabble take on life of the artist at its center.
Fire and Ice (1983)
Pioneering adult animation kingpin Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Wizards) brings to life the iconic images of painter Frank Frazetta, the larger-than-life pulp art master whose lusty barbarians, warlords, and goddesses have adorned some of the most powerful album covers in hard rock and heavy metal (check out his iconic efforts for Molly Hatchet, Nazareth, Dust, Yngwie Malmstein, Wolfmother, and more). Fire and Ice also happens to be a top-notch medieval fantasy adventure, rendered effectively vital by Bakshi’s multimedia rotoscoping technique. It truly makes one long for what might have been had the director had his way with the soundtrack for his 1978 Lord of the Rings adaptation. Bakshi actually got Led Zeppelin to agree to do it, but the studio balked at the band’s price. At present, From Dusk Till Dawn and Sin City filmmaker Robert Rodriguez is helming a live action remake of Fire and Ice. No way will it hold up to the original—even if he can secure a score by Led Zeppelin.
Rock & Rule (1983)
In a futuristic universe overrun with post-nuke mutants, an evil rock star kidnaps an angelic singer in hope of conjuring a demon, and her band must thwart the dastardly doings. Blondie, Cheap Trick, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Earth, Wind, and Fire provide the songs. Rock & Rule is the sole big-screen effort by Canadian animation studio Nelvana, the result of the company having passed on the chance to produce Heavy Metal. While it’s enjoyable on its own merits and potently nostalgic, Rock & Rule still isn’t nearly as weird as the television specials Nelvana created throughout the 1970s. That freaky Nelvana TV work includes A Cosmic Christmas, Rome-0 and Julie-8, The Devil and Daniel Mouse (upon which Rock & Rule is largely based), and the cartoon segment of 1978’s notorious Star Wars Holiday Special, in which the studio introduced the character of rogue bounty hunter Boba Fett.
American Pop (1981)
Iconoclastic Fritz the Cat animator Ralph Bakshi scored a surprise mainstream hit with American Pop, a flamboyant mixed media odyssey through 20th century U.S. history as experienced by multiple generations of a family of musicians. Beginning with vaudeville and continuing on through the 60s folk scene and into the acid era and stadium rock, American Pop hits full stride when it lavishly vitalizes hits by, among others, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Sex Pistols. The whole vast saga culminates with Bob Seger, which, at first, seems curious, but ultimately proves quite charming. Seger really could rock quite animatedly, after all.
The Body Electric (1985)
From the country that brought us animated sci-fi via Heavy Metal and Rock & Rule, along with musical sci-fi via the mighty Rush, comes The Body Electric. In fact, the made-for-TV movie was directly inspired by the music of Rush, with specific names, locations, and anti-authoritarian themes taken exactly from many of the progressive rock trio’s actual songs. As a handful of return to a civilization that was overtaken by robots who have since collapsed into dust, numerous libertarians-in-space anthems by Rush underscore the action, including “The Body Electric,” “2112,” “Working Man,” “Hemispheres,” “Jacob's Ladder,” “Red Sector A,” “Marathon,” “Cygnus X-1,” “Different Strings,” and “The Fountain of Lamneth.”
Hey, Good Lookin’ (1982)
Once again, we return to Ralph Bakshi. Hey, Good Lookin’ is the animator’s barely-released roughneck take on growing up in Brooklyn amidst greasers and goofballs during the 1950s. It was a popular theme at the time, but rather than scoring the movie with vintage pop hits in the manner of Martin Scorsese or American Graffiti, Bakshi instead commissioned an original score of rock'n'roll numbers by songwriters Ric Sandler and John Madara. The result is a fascinatingly strange musical concoction that sounds like 50s rock as interpreted through 80s new wave. The music, in fact, generated a far more intense cult than the movie itself ever did. In 2006, after nearly a quarter century of fans trading bootlegs, an official Hey Good Lookin’ soundtrack album finally came out.
B.C. Rock (1980)
Belgian cartoonist Picha initially broke into the adult animation in 1975 with Tarzoon, a raunchy Tarzan spoof that was retitled Shame of the Jungle for a U.S. that featured dubbed-in vocal work by ascending funnymen Bill Murray, John Belushi, and Christopher Guest. For Picha’s 1980 follow-up, the slapstick caveman farce B.C. Rock, Murray and Guest returned to do voices, but an oddball soundtrack was also assembled that featured Rick Wakeman of Yes, Clarence Clemmons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, and early MTV wonders Steel Breeze, whose one hit was the toe-tapper “You Don’t Love Me Anymore.”
Down and Dirty Duck (1974)
Cartoonist Bobby London’s underground comic strip Dirty Duck got big-screen treatment from B-movie mogul Roger Corman as he looking to score some Fritz the Cat-style cash. Alas, Down and Dirty Duck slipped quickly through the cracks, but it remains entertainingly gross and it does boast agreeably strange music by Flo and Eddie, the pop-mocking provocateurs formerly known as the Turtles and the lead singers for Frank Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention. On top of all that, Zappa himself makes a cartoon cameo in the movie.
The Point (1971)
The Point is a charming, moving, and, indeed, pointed musical children’s fable from the mind of singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, who was in a very specific state of mind when he came up with it. “I was on acid,” he bluntly revealed. Framed as a bedtime story and initially narrated by Dustin Hoffman (and, in later versions, by Nilsson’s dear friend Ringo Starr), The Point chronicles a round-headed boy named Oblio who lives among disapproving pointy-headed people. He’s forced to wear a conical cap until he ventures out with his dog, Arrow, to find a place where he’ll fit in. Psychedelically animated and quintessentially of its time, The Point is a consciousness-expanding lesson in acceptance, risk-taking, and life’s possibilities, replete with beautiful songs and mesmerizing images. Kids love it and growers of magic mushrooms have nary a negative word to say about it either.
Mike McPadden is in technicolor on Twitter.