Background: The year was 1983, perhaps best known by movie buffs for releases like Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Risky Business or Flashdance. I was attending college in the Boston area and a lot of buzz was being generated by the alternative radio stations and press about a new movie set to premiere locally, Rock & Rule. The street credibility of the movie's soundtrack was impressive in that it had original songs by Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick, Blondie, and others but the movie was also being billed as "what Heavy Metal could've been" by more than one source. Rock & Rule was an adult oriented animated feature, not like the sexually perverse Fritz the Cat or the conceptually nebulous Yellow Submarine, but more like a fun version of American Pop or a more focused Heavy Metal. Like most of those around me, I was definitely ready for something more geared to my tastes than what Disney had to offer and the un-bastardized wave of anime that came out of Japan years later would eventually satiate. "Cartoons" or animation had long been a staple in the American market and this looked like it might be exactly what I needed to see that dreamy night a few friends tore me away from studying to see. Rock & Rule was the product of a Canadian company, Nelvana, that had already produced a few successful shows aired around the holidays on broadcast television, the most important (to me) of which was Star Wars: Thanksgiving TV Special, which introduced bounty hunter Boba Fett to the Star Wars universe. Could a company known for fluffy holiday pieces really make a kick ass flick full of dark imagery, drugs, and most importantly, "real" rock & roll? I had to find out for myself and to this day I don't recall which class I was taking during the summer session but I remember the movie like it aired yesterday.
Movie: Rock & Rule was a story about light versus dark, good versus evil, and truth versus trickery as much as the backdrop for a great soundtrack. The opening prologue spelled it out like this: "The war was over… The only survivors were street animals: dogs, cats and rats. From them, a new race of mutants evolved. That was a long time ago… MOK, a legendary superocker, has retired to OHMTOWN. There his computers work at deciphering an ancient code which would unlock a doorway between this world and another dimension. Obsessed with his dark experiment, MOK himself searches for the last crucial component – a very special voice." The alternative version's opening was slightly different but basically the same for those who care.
The opening logo gave the exact feel needed to prepare the audience for what was to come.
MOK Swagger, truly one of cinema's best villains and "the greatest thing since world war three", was a combination of Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie during his alien phase; from looks to the personality traits he displayed. Desperate to make a comeback and secure his immortality, he moves beyond the theatrical magic of his concerts to attempt calling a demon into this universe to serve his wishes as well as granting him power that his vast wealth can't buy. As his computers translate the text for the invocation of the demon, MOK goes to small clubs with his henchmen in hopes of finding the voice needed to finish the spell. When MOK finds what he's looking for in the form of Angel, a young and aspiring vocalist in a crummy band, he invites the band to his mansion to make her an offer to join him in a comeback concert, failing to tell her the details of his dark plan.
Mok makes Angel an offer she can't refuse.
Mok refuses to take no for an answer and casts a spell (of sorts) on the band, taking Angel under his wing with the help of his usual tricks, offering her not anything but everything she could dream of. When that doesn't work, he resorts to old fashioned methods that have stood the test of time. The movie then springs into a variation of the usual band saving their friend from the clutches of MOK as he makes a failed attempt at bringing forth the demon.
MOK sings about his favorite subject: MOK.
Angel, once caught a second time, is forced to comply in a scene that would've looked pretty hot if done with a real woman.
The demon coming through the gate opened by Angel's voice eyes the audience full of sacrifices.
The demon turns his attention to Angel when she attempts to sing him back, failing to realize that nobody's voice is capable of changing what has happened. Angel's hope is dashed as the demon prepares to eat her.
The permanent cloud over OHMTOWN lifts after the town is nearly destroyed by the demon, leaving death and carnage in its wake.
The story is a metaphor about selling ones soul in hopes of achieving success, albeit with some interesting variations on the time tested theme. Angel's purity is sought by the decadent MOK as much as her voice and she proves quite the heroine as she takes care of business on her own rather than waiting for her prince charming to rescue her. The movie was made over the course of three years and underwent numerous changes in plot, characters, and even animation techniques (that were crud compared to current standards). Yeah, the story had plenty of flaws and a coherent script might've helped Rock & Rule make it big but even director Clive Smith admitted that they were making it up as they went along. The concept of "One Voice, One Heart, One Song" having the power to reverse the spell against the idea that "No one voice can send it back" was reminiscent of various fantasy anthologies but it was a cute twist in an often clever set of insider jokes.
MOK's character was easily the most complex of the show and anyone dealing with the music industry has met someone with traits like his (trying to put on an act making them look more powerful, self importance, and willing to do anything to achieve his goals). Angel, on the other hand, was more the archetype of the loyal girlfriend who was incorruptible except by extraordinary means. The other characters were less well developed and the story did suffer for this fact but the roots of Rock & Rule remained fixed in the rock & roll mythology (let's face it, rock and roll rarely follows a linear path as the chaos it presents gives it the raw energy to give some deeper meaning). The movie wouldn't be made today since the drug use, open sexuality, and satanic references would likely give the censors fits yet it never went as far as it should have to truly reach that adult audience it sought so many years ago before falling off the map to become the cult classic it is today.
Fans of the movie will find this one as close to a DVD Talk Collector Series release as they've ever seen based as much on the incredibly solid package of extras contained in the Collector's Edition release (which were surprising given the age of the release and how poorly it did in its limited run as much as how a fire destroyed many elements needed to fill out the package) as the movie itself. If you opt for the single disc version instead, consider it as a few notches down the pecking order but the inclusion of the Canadian broadcast version, complete with different lead vocals for Omar (Angel's boyfriend and the lead male protagonist), extra footage, and alternative ending; and the conceptual basis for the story, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, and a host of great extras made the Collector's Edition a must have for fans of animation in general, not just those acquainted with the movie itself.
Picture: Rock & Rule: Collector's Edition was presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color, unlike an earlier laserdisc or VHS version released about twenty years ago. One of the extras in the set was a comparison of the film before and after the remastering/cleaning up of the 35mm print. This helped me look beyond my rose colored glasses to see how much work was needed to restore the film, making it look better than it ever did when I watched it in the theatre (along with the very few others in attendance before it closed). It also looked better than the late night premium cable showings that used to appear from time to time. That said, there was grain and other minor flaws but it still looked very sharp for its age and budget. My sources tell me that the company doing the restoration, Gamma Ray Digital, went cell by cell to clean up the movie (a process that added a significant amount of time to this wonderful release) but it was all worth it. Further, it looked better than I recall the limited theatrical run did (but that was a long time ago) and this is also to their credit. Purists will note that my pictures above were taken with some low end software so see the movie for yourselves rather than rely heavily on them.
Sound: The original film was shot painstakingly in a quadraphonic setup so the DVDs 5.1 Dolby Digital was far less intrusive than similar works from the time that savage 2.0 tracks to introduce elements not originally present. There really wasn't a lot of action taking place in the rear channels but if you play this as loud as it needs to be, you won't notice. The dynamic range of the audio was actually better than I thought it would be but make no mistake, this isn't a movie made recently and comparisons to such would be flawed. The music was often terrific with songs by Debbie Harry/Chris Stein (Blondie) including Angel's Song, Send Love Through, and the Invocation Song (bits of these were used in later solo albums by Ms. Harry); Cheap Trick's Born To Raise Hell, I'm The Man, and Ohm Sweet Ohm; Lou Reed's perfect My Name Is Mok as well as Triumph; and some other decent, if less interesting songs that are not generally available commercially.
Extras: The extras were one area that Rock & Rule: Collector's Edition really shined. On the first disc, the inclusion of the director's commentary gave Clive Smith a chance to reminisce over so many aspects of the making of the movie as well as what went wrong. I strongly recommend fans listen to it since it gave nearly as much detail as the printed interview from FPS magazine provided in the paper handout included here. I could forgive Mr. Smith's minor faux pas in terms of conflicting information since so many years had passed and I only wished that some of the others involved in the project could've participated. I also loved watching the 24.5 minute long Making of Rock & Rule special included as it showcased many of the creative forces going into the movie (with rare interviews of the musicians for example). Whoever thought to document their participation should be congratulated as this was far better than average and not just a fluff piece as most such extras tend to be. There was also a series of sketches and the aforementioned restoration comparison as well as a special thanks to all those involved.
The second disc offered up even more for the fan, starting with the Canadian version of Rock & Rule, a slightly different but no less powerful film that suffered from a substantially lower quality print (due to a fire at the storage facility) done in full frame. I agree with the makers that this was important to include since the alternative ending, different voice for Omar, and extra footage were cool but also since this might well be the version that many fans saw. Of no less value was the inclusion of the short feature The Devil and Daniel Mouse, a take off on the classic Devil and Daniel Webster but also the conceptual basis for the feature itself too. There was a Making of feature for this one too, one I believe was unreleased before now, and it also added some significant value to the collector's set. Historians and fans alike might enjoy the working storyboard for Rock & Rule (called Drats at the time) as it gave even more lost footage and some perspective of how the film evolved. They should also appreciate the working blueprint for the opening sequence that lasted nearly three minutes too as well as the two trailers and additional sketch gallery. Lastly, there was a DVD ROM version of the script itself, something many fans have clamored for over the years. I only wish the music rights could've been worked out so that the music videos and a music CD could be offered, if not an isolated score too, but it should be considered a near miracle that the songs all survived in the movie given the manner in which copyrights have interfered with similar projects coming to DVD.
Final Thoughts: Rock & Rule: Collector's Edition was well worth the wait in my opinion. As a fan of the movie, I have to give some credit to the folks at Unearthed Films for going the extra mile(s) in order to make sure the movie was properly handled considering MGM's past attempts at releasing older films. The movie was an important step in the evolution of animated films and even if the story was a bit uneven, it helped advance the market for animation of all types, including anime. The technical matters here were superior to many films released on DVD in recent months, even those much more recently hitting the big screen. Looking at the big picture, I have to admit that I've looked forward to this release for over twenty years given the messed up aspect ratio of the tape and laserdisc if not for the valuable additions of extras and technical fixes alone. In short, Rock & Rule: Collector's Edition was the definitive version of a film long lost to the ravages of time. If Unearthed Films does as good a job with their other releases, I suspect they're going to be mentioned along with Criterion before long in DVD circles.
If you enjoy animation, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 articles or regular column Anime Talk