As life goes on and we grow older, we often find ourselves wrestling with deep, important questions about the universe and our place in it. For instance: what if Mick Jagger was the villain of a ‘90s era Disney film? What would an animated post-apocalyptic rock opera about the power of love overcoming demonic invasions look like if it had come from the same studio that gave the world The Magic School Bus and The Care Bears? What would have happened if Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth had met up, done a copious amount of hallucinogenics, then drawn out the animated sequences of Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Fortunately, we have answers to all these questions and more. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Rock & Rule.
Rock & Rule is one of those classic animated post-apocalyptic rock operas about the power of love conquering demonic invasion, with antigravity nightclubs, goons on roller skates, and a setting that’s somewhere in between Heavy Metal and Blade Runner, with several fever dream interludes that, sure enough, feels like a trippy blend of Don Bluth, Ralph Bakshi, The Wall, and many, many psychedelics. Sure we’ve seen it before, but have we seen it with original songs from Cheap Trick, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and a special appearance from Earth, Wind, and Fire? I think not.
Rock & Rule opens on Mok, an aging superstar currently in the middle of a nationwide talent search serving as a front for his secret, sinister agenda. Having exhausted nearly every venue across the country, he returns to his home in Ohmtown, deciding to make one last trip to a local nightclub in hopes of finding the voice he’s looking for.
As Mok makes his way to the club we meet the band that will be performing that night: a group of four plucky youngsters trying to make it in this crazy, mixed-up, post-apocalyptic world: Omar, the brooding, bad-boy lead singer and guitarist who wants it all and wants it now; Angel, who has a heart and a voice befitting her name and is ready to show the world what she’s got—if Omar would be willing to share the spotlight; level-headed drummer Dizzy, who’s trying to keep things together long enough for the band to actually make it—and keep the romantic tension between Omar and Angel from becoming just plain old tension; and neurotic bassist Stretch, who’s mostly just along for the ride.
The group is hoping that with the night’s performance that they’ll finally be on the way to fame and fortune, but, at first, their performance is not well received—that is until Angel takes the lead and her voice happens to catch Mok’s attention, leading to a personal invitation to his mansion, where she finds herself kidnapped after refusing to abandon her friends. This leads to a bizarre journey from Ohmtown to Nuke York and back again to try and rescue Angel while putting a stop to Mok’s plans.
His Name Is Mok—Thanks A Lot
Mok, originally named Mok Swagger, professionally known as Mok the Magic Man, is the heart and soul of Rock & Rule. He’s rich, powerful, completely deranged, completely ’80’s and an over-the-top egomaniac – one who will happily tell you that his greatness has no limits. To give you an idea of just what Mok thinks of himself, here are some particularly telling lyrics from the full version of one of his two songs featured in the movie, fittingly called “Triumph”:
You are all witness to my will,
I told you I was better still,
Than anything that had ever come before me,
What better time to be alive?
Than when Mok does his magic jive,
What a privilege it is
To watch such a superior being.
Essentially, Mok is a rock god who believes himself to be a real, capital-g God. Now, anyone who’s familiar with animated movies knows that the villains usually tend to fall on the side of grandiose and/or slightly petty—Maleficent placed a death curse on an infant for not being invited to a party, Lady Tremaine locked her stepdaughter in her room for possibly being prettier than her own daughters, the Evil Queen tried to have a teenager murdered for being explicitly prettier than she was—but Mok easily puts them all to shame. When we first meet the Magic Man, he’s facing down the existential nightmare that faces every rock heavyweight at some point in their careers: as time has gone on, the kids just don’t get it anymore, resulting in a drop in record sales—and as he notes with disgust to Angel, “My last concert was not…completely sold out”.
But Mok isn’t content to just cash in on his name while releasing more and more mediocre records and filling stadiums on the nostalgia circuit—he’s an artist. His ultimate ambitions are far greater than that: he wants to secure his place in history, with one final performance that will ensure his name is remembered for generations.
His plan to do so? An ancient, satanic text being deciphered by his supercomputer, which will tell him how to open a portal into an “alternate dimension” (not explicitly Hell but…Hell) and summon forth an “all-powerful being” (not explicitly a demon but…a demon).
Yes, the grand plan of Rock & Rule‘s villain is “I’m going to literally summon a demon because my record sales are dropping”. Eat your heart out, Maleficent.
Despite its absolutely off-the-wall premise, Rock & Rule is a little light on the plot at times, but the film unquestionably soars in its animation.
The opening sequence feels straight out of Blade Runner: a dark, moody drive above a ruined city seemingly covered in smoke. It’s almost all darkness, accented by the neon purples and blues we associate with the era and accompanied by a punchy synthesizer. Buildings and vehicles draw influence from the artwork of Moebius. Character designs can be somewhat subject to taste, but each of them is filled with personality, with even the background characters almost all having a unique flavor or identity of their own. The film even uses a few neat practical effects to achieve its look: the clouds in one particular shot were cotton balls flattened underneath the glass frames and the smoke used throughout the film was cigarette smoke.
Of particular note is the film’s climax; the power plant where the concert takes place looms over the town like a new age Mount Doom, and when the demon finally emerges after the summoning it morphs from a heavy metal version of Fantasia’s Chernabog into a tower of faces that looks like a horrifying cross between Junji Ito’s Uzumaki and Dante’s Inferno.
In short, this is old-school hand-drawn animation at its finest and an absolutely gorgeous film; production values were unusually high for a film that started production in 1979, and it shows by how well the film holds up despite no high-quality prints being available.
Weird Real Life Stuff
But, as if the plot of Rock & Rule wasn’t insane enough, the real-life stories surrounding the film are arguably weirder. For starters, the film was an unquestionable flop, pulling in a box office of $30,379 against a budget of $8 million. Before completion, distribution rights were bought by MGM, who wound up not caring about it in the slightest and giving it an extremely limited theatrical release. It nearly put Nelvana out of business, but the company managed to save themselves from debt by working full time on animated children’s shows; their biggest financial windfall was, yes, The Care Bears Movie released in 1985.
Then, there’s the fact that two distinctly different versions of the movie exist: the original Canadian release, and the American cut. MGM insisted on several changes, including a completely new voice actor for Omar, replacing Greg Salata with Paul Le Mat, a more vivid color pallet, an altered introduction that explains why everyone is part animal, and a tweaked ending.
Then, there are the rumors surrounding what happened to the original master elements: according to a disclaimer on the DVD and Blu-ray releases, the master elements of the Canadian print were destroyed in a fire, leading many to believe that the original soundtrack recordings and production elements were also reduced to ashes—but, there’s no other evidence to suggest that Nelvana had ever endured such a fire.
Speaking of soundtracks, you’d think with such a star-studded cast that an official soundtrack would have seen an official release, but it did not. It’s speculated that a combination of the film’s limited release and the artists involved being on different record labels, there was no proper soundtrack ever released, outside of a promotional cassette given to the press that featured nine songs from the film. The only thing close to a cohesive release has been a couple of surprisingly well-done fan remasters, done by people who were able to track down those original cassette recordings and restore them to a listenable state.
Several of the songs did live on in some official form: the three Cheap Trick tracks—“Born to Raise Hell”, “I’m the Man”, and “Ohm Sweet Ohm”—were officially released in a 1996 box set, Earth, Wind, and Fire released their contribution “Dance, Dance, Dance” as a digital single in 2012, Iggy Pop’s “Pain and Suffering” saw the light of day as a bonus track on the 2019 re-release of Zombie Birdhouse after an entirely different recording was a bonus track on that album’s 1991 reissue, and Debbie Harry’s Angel’s Song had its lyrics revised before becoming “Maybe For Sure” on her 1981 album Def, Dumb, and Blonde.
So what happened with Rock & Rule, and why do people love it as much as they do now instead of when it was first released? Part of it lies with MGM; as it was already mentioned, the film was given an extremely limited release and never really got the chance to reach anyone who would have appreciated it. Secondly, cartoons for adults that don’t fall into the Family Guy/Simpsons/South Park types of shows are still a grossly underutilized niche that doesn’t have too many people in the industry trying to push for it—basically, there aren’t enough Ralph Bakshi types in the world. Finally, it’s a movie that’s really hard to appreciate outside of the “sci-fi/rock opera/animated movie” niche—but if that is something that’s your jam, Rock & Rule is a hidden ‘80s gem that is definitely worth a watch.