The comic that SENDS LOVE THROUGH – Marvel Super Special #25, “Rock & Rule”
It’s not often that I come across a comic adaptation for a movie that I’ve never heard of, and that’s especially true for movies that have come out during my lifetime. That applies quadruply here, with a cartoon produced right when I was in the cartoon demographic wheelouse. Welcome to the world of Rock & Rule.
It turns out that there was good reason that I’d never heard of this 1983 animated Canadian feature, which features post-apocalyptic rats, cats, dogs and rock music on an Earth where all humans are dead and gone — picture a Kamandi-less Kamandi with a soundtrack. It never got a theatrical release in North America, and our continent only saw it on cable, a limited VHS release and scores of bootlegs. MGM was the big overlord studio that pulled the plug on its release, and that banishment almost killed the small studio (Nelvana) that crafted it. It was the first feature-length English language cartoon produced in Canada (a narrow category, granted — “And now the nominees for Best Actor in a Period Drama about Charlemagne…”). It was almost the last.
That’s the Inside Baseball background of the film. With my curiosity roused, I decided to watch the thing. Thanks, YouTube (and sorry, ghost of Jack Valenti).
I wanted to like it. The animation is excellent for the time, and some of the character design is nice. The main villain, Mok, a rock star fusion of Mick Jagger, Trevor Goodchild from Aeon Flux and Aladdin‘s Jafar (voiced in his songs by Lou Reed and Iggy Pop) — who wants to summon a demon, as all good rock superstars do – left me cold, but the two leads, Omar and Angel, sortofkindofalmost work. Omar, the lead singer in a two-bit rock band (song vocals by Robin Zander of Cheap Trick), is given the sullen, pouty burn that chicks so dig (even if he has an inexcusably off-putting snout). Angel, his fellow vocalist in their band, is the real standout, another in a long line of anthropomorphized cartoon babes that are disturbingly fetching, and whose singing voice is provided by Blondie herself, Deborah Harry. These two characters have a nice romantic tension. They clearly love each other with the throbbing energy that only courses through the veins of young rockers, while at the same time Omar is jealous of any hint that Angel might outshine him.
That’s the good.
The bad is that the story plods. Angel’s voice is the last element that Mok needs to summon a demon to kill a lot of people (I don’t think he put a lot of thought into the second stage of this master plan), and the whole things centers around her abduction, Mok’s attempts to win her cooperation, and Omar’s vain efforts, with two thinly-drawn bandmates, to get her back. Along the way there are some forgettable songs by recognizable names (Earth, Wind & Fire threw one on the pile), and none of it engages in the least. All is conveyed in juvenile tones, which is grating in a film whose sex and devils are clearly aimed at adults.
Then there’s the grand climax of the film, which contains a “twist” that anyone with more than one firing synapse can see coming before the end of the first reel. Trust me, discussing it is no spoiler, and I need to do so to make a final, whiplash-inducing point. As stated above, Angel’s voice singing a certain progression of notes is the key to bringing a big fat hell-monster to this dimension, and she obligingly screeches them at a concert after Mok drugs her. The beastie belches its way into our realm and starts gobbling up hapless concertgoers, and though Omar is able to (finally…) free Angel, it looks like all is lost.
But no. Angel decides to sing the monster back to hell, in a reprise of a tune that she crooned earlier in the film, a song that, instead of singing with her, Omar turned his (large) nose up at before stalking off the stage. That jealousy thing, remember? Alas, the song has no effect with Angel singing alone. Evil demon-flames threaten to consumer her, until OMAR JOINS IN, FULFILLING SOME FREAKING PROPHECY OR SOMETHING. The singular pronouns in the lyrics turn plural. Ugh.
All this was foreshadowed with the subtlety of piledriver. My teeth were grating waiting for the inevitable to play out. And my hand was raised and ready to punch a hole in my laptop’s monitor, the information superhighway version of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power album cover.
But I didn’t. I’m typing this on that same laptop. What saved it from a Elvis-shooting-the-TV fate?
This song somehow, in a strange, hideous alchemy, reversed my thinking on the whole movie. It. Is. So. Dumb. But. I. Love. It. So. I didn’t do a complete 180 degree turn. I still think the film is a misfire, but my opinion has softened. Considerably. I’ve taken off the brass knuckles. BECAUSE BLONDIE AND CHEAP TRICK TEAMED TOGETHER TO SAVE THE WORLD AND SEND A DEMON BACK TO HELL AND MAKE THE SUN COME OUT AND CREATE A RAINBOW AND ROLL THE CREDITS. TO A TUNE THAT I WAS HUMMING UNTIL I WENT TO BED. SAINTS PRESERVE US.
I’m sure this will lack the requisite context to generate a similar reaction in anyone else, but here’s the finale if you’re curious:
Okay, movie. We’re cool. But don’t try to pull this shit again.
And now, the comic.
So what if nobody saw the thing in a theater. It got a Marvel Super Special! That’s a bit like getting a board game parting gift after losing the Showcase Showdown, but beggars can’t be choosers. Take what you can get, Nelvana.
There’s a different tack taken with this adaptation, as actual imagery from the film is used to illustrate it. This makes a whole lot of sense when it comes to old-timey cel animation, which when you think about it is nothing more than rapidly flipped panels. The translation (overseen by Bob Budiansky and director Clive Smith) sometimes gets a bit stiff and awkward as words and narration (from scripter Bill Mantlo) are shoehorned in when there were none in the movie itself. Take this section, which goes along with the above embed:
The wordiness is perhaps unavoidable. Whatchagonnado?
Of more interest are the articles in the back. There’s a lot of the typical “Making of” material, most of which falls into the “been there, done that” category. If you’ve seen one character’s early design sketches, you’ve seen them all, you know? I found some of the info about how the songs were written and recorded intriguing, including the “Send Love Through” finale fusion. Turns out Harry and Zander never set foot in the same studio, which makes sense after hearing the way they sang over one another in their duet. Read more about it:
I feel bad for this movie. It suffers from inevitable and unfair comparisons to the revered Heavy Metal and Ralph Bakshi’s treasured oeuvre. People worked hard for years on this thing, designing, drawing (no computers, kids), financing the production and lining up significant recording artists, only to have the rug pulled out from under their feet before any release. They tried, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of crap out there. Without failures there would be no splendid failures, and without splendid failures there would be no splendor. I don’t know if that makes sense, and I don’t know if Rock & Rule would qualify as a splendid failure. I’m afraid that dreaded backhanded “cult classic” compliment is the best it can muster.
It has a spot in the affections of many that I can’t fully back. I think a lot of that warmth comes from its former hard to locate/forbidden fruit aspect (it’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray), not so much the quality animation. But I have my own cherished yet terrible rock-soundtracked cartoons (*cough* Transformers: The Movie *cough*), so I don’t begrudge folks their fandom. And, what the hell…
“Now as one, we’re gonna show, it’s our one desire…”