In the future, after a nuclear holocaust, anthropomorphic creatures have come to dominate the urban centers of the world. In the waste land left behind by humanity’s final wars, Mok (Don Franks with Lou Reed providing the character’s singing voice) has become the greatest of all pop stars. His dream is to bring forth a demon from another dimension à la Urotsukidōji (1989) to rule the world. But to do this he must kidnap the singer Angel (Susan Roman with Debbie Harry providing the character’s singing voice) whose voice can open a magical portal. For Angel’s bandmates it becomes a race against time to stop Mok and save the world.
The opening title card of Rock & Rule (1983) which establishes the fantasy world of the film is reminiscent of David Bowie’s monologue “Future Legend” that prefaces his 1974 album Diamond Dogs. Immediately the viewer is cued in to the kind of post-apocalyptic infused rock fantasia that awaits. The musicians who contributed to the soundtrack are well known denizens of a particularly nihilistic sub genre of rock where punk and pop meet. The same could be said of the cinematographic aspects of Rock & Rule which owe as much to Heavy Metal (1981) as to Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981), Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975).
The satirical tone of Rock & Rule follows in the tradition of Phantom Of The Paradise (1973) but allows room for more Looney Tunes inspired antics, presumably so that the film would appeal to a wider demographic. Herein lies the greatest weakness of the film. Content that is clearly aimed at adults rubs shoulders with childish slapstick and prolonged sequences with characters who only serve as comic relief. The numerous abrupt shifts in dramatic tone and narrative style prevent the spectator from investing in what is, on a technical level, one of the great Animated musicals of the eighties.
Director Clive A. Smith stuffs Rock & Rule with as much visual ambience as possible to create an immersive world of impoverished, midnight hour landscapes. The design of Mok is clearly meant to resemble Mick Jagger while Angel’s look is inspired by Debbie Harry who lends the character her singing voice. In this cultural dichotomy it’s classic rock versus new wave. The struggle of older acts like The Rolling Stones to retain cultural relevancy in the eighties is an obvious inspiration for Rock & Rule; a film that clearly comes out on the side of bands like Blondie and Cheap Trick who are the aesthetic descendents of Lou Reed’s group The Velvet Underground.
The type of science fiction on display in Rock & Rule originates with rock figures like David Bowie and the band Gong. Like the author John Victor Peterson, these musicians saw a correlation between rock music and dynamic social and scientific progression. These works typically heralded the rock star as a kind of god that, through their own power, would become a corrupting influence that would have to be destroyed. Usually these narratives played out against a post-nuclear war landscape not dissimilar to the one popularized by Pierre Boulle.
The science fiction themes and the general style of animation in Rock & Rule may feel as dated as the music. But the ability of Rock & Rule to entertain as well as perplex has hardly diminished. Rock & Rule is a film that is both wholly of its moment yet unique enough to transcend time. This one is a cult classic for good reason and is definitely worth checking out.