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“Rock & Rule”: The oft-forgotten animated post-apocalyptic rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi fantasy mutant musical
With the recent passing of Maurice White — the founder and leader of Earth, Wind & Fire died last week, on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, at the age of 74 — we were reminded of his group’s “Dance, Dance, Dance” which was one of the few highlights of the oft-forgotten animated post-apocalyptic rock ‘n’ roll sci-fi fantasy musical Rock & Rule.
As you can see from this in-studio interview with White, the track — which he calls “Let’s Dance” in this clip — is used in a clubbing scene inside a club called “666.” White says he likes writing for animated films because it allowed him to take his imagination “farther out, which I think is very beautiful.”
Earth, Wind & Fire - “Dance, Dance, Dance”
Released into theaters in 1983, Rock & Rule — known as Ring of Power outside of North America — was the first English-language feature produced by the Toronto, Ontario-based animation company Nelvana, when the company were still trying to find their way, apparently, into the American (and global) animated movie market.
Three hundred animators worked on this one, under the direction of Clive A. Smith, who was able to do a few things well — he managed to get some of the top acts in music at the time to participate in the now-dated soundtrack, including Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and her beau Chris Stein of Blondie, Cheap Trick, and White’s Earth, Wind & Fire (billed as a “special performance by” the group) — but overall the film failed to connect all the dots, going over budget, spending more than $8 million on the project which came very close to putting Nelvana out of business.
The Rock & Rule project remained under development for at least four years, beginning in life in 1979 under the watchful eye of co-producer Michael Hirsh and director Smith. The original story was actually derived from a 1978 TV special, produced by Nelvana, called “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” surely based on or inspired by the Faustian short story tale told “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” by Stephen Vincent Benét.
Believe it or not, it still took three writers — Patrick Loubert, Nelvana’s senior producer, who came up with the basic idea, John Halfpenny and Peter Sauder — to write the screenplay for this one.
Some sources say that Nelvana’s producing team originally saw it as a children’s film first before it underwent many changes along the way, becoming darker with the addition of certain more adult-themed subject matter, and relatively few computer images were used (computer-created graphics and animation were still in their infancy at the time).
The movie’s plot takes place after the Third World War in a future setting where humans have been wiped out, and animals have evolved into humanoid-like anthropomorphic human creatures after being exposed to radiation from nuclear fallout, resulting in their warped appearance looking like dogs, cats and mice.
Apparently, as the story evolved, the characters became less like rodent-based animals and more like humanoids with rat ears and noses (it’s still the number one off-putting thing about the movie if you ask us).
Lou Reed – “My Name is Mok”
At the center of the story, right from the beginning, is an older rocker-type Mick Jagger-ish supervillain-ish named Mok Swagger, simply referred to as “Mok,” who is voiced by Don Francks — he also worked on Ralph Bakshi’s Heavy Metal — and his songs are song by Lou Reed (“My Name is Mok,” and “Triumph”). Mok’s nickname is “The Magic Man,” and he’s apparently something of a legend, or so we’re told (he saw one of his recordings “go gold, platinum, and plutonium in one day!”).
Mok’s nefarious plans include the fact that his computers have deciphered an ancient Satanic code, which he uses to unlock a gateway to another dimension. He’s hoping to find the portal to Hell (or someplace like it), in order to go down there and then return with a fearsome demon-like dude from the netherworld who will him rule over the world, such as it exists in its current post-WWIII state.
That monster from another dimension — let’s just call him the Devil — is voiced in song by Iggy Pop (“Pain and Suffering”).
Iggy Pop -“Pain and Suffering”
The portal apparently will only become accessible to Mok when opened with something called the “Armageddon Key,” which turns the lock, so to speak, when specific musical chords are sung by a very special voice — and this is the voice he’s been searching for, which leads him right at the beginning of the film to the end of his search, having returned to Ohmtown, the city of his origin.
There he finds a cute mutant small town rock outfit called the Drats — some sources claim that Drats! was an original working title for the film — who are trying to hit it big despite lacking what most might say is something essential: talent.
They’re led by a singer named Omar, voiced by Greg Salata, but his songs are sung by Robin Zander of Cheap Trick. There are three of them: “Born to Raise Hell,” “I’m the Man,” and “Ohm Sweet Ohm.”
Cheap Trick - “Born To Raise Hell”
Mok, we’re told, believes the voice belongs not to Omar but to Angel, the band’s bassist and Omar’s girlfriend, Angel, and it’s pretty clear to us too that she is probably an even better front singer for the band — including Dizzy (drums), and Stretch (guitar) — than he is.
The drama unfolds as Mok tries to convince Angel to sing those magic songs of her in order for him to be able to descend into the darkness to retrieve their future leader. Angel is kidnapped and taken to Nuke York.
Mok’s plan all along has been to summon the demon during a concert, and use its power to do the typical villainous things — become all-powerful, rule the world, etc., and once Omar finds out what has happened, it’s up to him and his bandmates to come to Nuke York and rescue her and save the day (they’ll still be in the post-WWIII apocalyptic Nuke York, which sorta also looks like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner… but whatever).
The Earth, Wind and Fire track, as mentioned above, is heard during a scene where they are searching for Angel in a NY club called “666.”
Clubbing scene at 666
Our heroine Angel is voiced by Susan Roman but featuring Debbie Harry’s singing voice on the songs “Angel’s Song” and “Invocation Song” (“Angel’s Song” was actually an early version of the song that became “Maybe For Sure” from Deborah Harry’s 1989 album Def, Dumb & Blonde).
Harry and Zander also duet on “Send Love Through”
Deborah Harry and Robin Zander - “Send Love Through”
Angel, by the way, is clearly a feminist role model and the film’s protagonist — were you thinking it was Omar? — as she’s not sitting around, waiting for her boyfriend to save her, nor does she fade into the background when the guys in the band ride into town to rescue her.
Melleny Brown — the actress, singer, and DJ was just fourteen at the time, and not yet known for her work with the Care Bears franchise, the Canadian/US TV series “Star Wars: Ewoks,” or by either name Melleny Melody and Melleefresh — sings “Hot Dogs and Sushi.”
Almost a year before its eventual release, United Artists and MGM picked up the film for acquisition. MGM/UA had come about at the time because MGM had recently acquired United Artists after the debacle of Heaven’s Gate, which had made just three million dollars back in box office receipts after costing $44 million to make. The post-Heaven’s Gate company wasn’t long for the world, and were being faced with bankruptcy, leading to MGM ended acquiring all of United Artists films.
Apparently the new company executives took a look at what they’d been delivered by Nelvana and they were unimpressed; they sent the animators back to the drawing board, so to speak, with mulitple script revisions and other changes which according to those involved with the project not only delayed the film’s release and sent them soaring hopelessly over budget, but also wrecked the actual story they’d been working on.
Hoping to add some star power to the film, the actor voicing Omar for the American film distribution was replaced by Paul Le Mat, who many will remember for his role as John Milner, the street racer in George Lucas’s American Graffiti.
MGM screened the film again, for a test audience, and were baffled at how they’d actually market the film, which was probably perceived as being too adult for the children’s market, yet too childish for the adult market. It had a scary post-World War III plotline that involved drug use, profanity, sexual scenarios and the animators had even implied devil worship, and so it was clearly made for an adult audience despite the fact that adults weren’t yet going to animated movies in theaters, not on a regular basis, not yet.
They decided it was better to give the 77-minute Rock & Rule a limited release (it’s likely it was rated R at the time too) in the United States and not waste any more time on the project — a kind of b-grade Baskhi knock-off (it may remind some of Bakshi’s much better films American Pop, Wizards, or even his animated Lord of the Rings features) — which was difficult to market to its intended audience.
Rock & Rule was test-screened in Boston, Massachusetts, on just one day — April 15, 1983 — and later at a film festival in Germany (it may have been screened elsewhere in Europe but was never released in France), but it was essentially shelved and pretty much went unseen on the big screen by most ticket-buying audiences thereafter for quite a while.
At the time, there was no help from movie critics — like Janet Maslin of the New York Times — who were simply baffled as to what they were supposed to like about Rock & Rule, with Maslin writing that “The animation […] has an unfortunate way of endowing the male characters with doggy-looking muzzles. In any case, the mood is dopey and loud.”
Here’s a “Making Of Rock & Rule” documentary — the Maurice White interview comes from this 25-minute short.
Speaking of loudness, the soundtrack… well, there wasn’t one — despite the fact that the film boasted a lot of A-list rock artists. Some of the songs appeared as b-sides of their singles (unfortunately, like much of 80s music when heard today, most of it sounds pretty dated and of-it’s-time).
There was a tie-in promotion with Marvel Comics, who did a comic book adaptation featuring actual drawings from the film, produced that same year as Marvel Super Special #25, and apparently the comic book sold well despite the film’s limited release.
Rock & Rule was released on VHS, and laserdisc — they were all the rage at the time — but it didn’t find its core cult audience until HBO and Showtime both began showing the film on a regular basis during late-night airings.
Nelvana’s next animated feature film (released in 1985), was much more successful, and would net them a $23 million gross: The Care Bears Movie. Meanwhile, the Canadian animated company still retained their original cut of Rock & Rule (with Omar not being voiced by Paul Le Mat), and for a time they sold expensive VHS copies.
Unfortunately, the full wide-screen print of the cut was destroyed in a fire, and if you’re looking for a VHS copy, only the version in pan-and-scan format exists to this day, if you can find it.
An obscure edit of the film was broadcast in 1984 by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in the 1980s, but it cut out a lot of the stuff which made it appear to be even more muddled than necessary.
Those now hard-to-find VHS tapes began to circulate through traders and via comic book nerds at conventions, and it has since then grown from its cult status due to occasional screenings at colleges and repertory cinemas — it’s a fave of the original Night Flight generation — into an animated film with a respectable following for which it holds a special place in their memories, no doubt because there are many who likely enjoy poking fun at it while they watch anthropomorphic animals singing 80s new wave songs in a setting of sex, drugs, and Satansim.
In 2006, a special 2-disc DVD of the film was released by Unearthed Films, and it included audio commentary by Clive Smith, along with behind-the-scenes pictures, and making-of material. The original cut of the film also came with this release.