Rock and Rule Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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For those who don't care to read much here's a quick summary of what I'm about to say in a much longer, more convoluted fashion: Rock and Rule comes out on DVD today. It's a great little film, thoroughly deserving of cult classic status, and Unearthed has done a brilliant job on their DVD release. Go buy it. Right now.

And here is the longer version.

I would've been about eleven or twelve when I first stumbled across Rock and Rule playing on the CBC, Canada's national television broadcaster. I had missed the beginning and didn't even know what the title was but there was something so compelling about it that I sat and watched it through to the end and have carried images from the film around in my head ever since. There was just something so different about the film and its mix of sex, drugs, demons, and rock and roll. It was completely unlike anything I'd ever seen and the experience was laced with the thrill of the forbidden: if my conservative parents had had any clue what I was watching there was no chance they would have allowed it.

But the film disappeared from sight after that viewing, sliding into complete obscurity and while I never forgot it I also never even learned its name. It was a childhood experience, one seemingly gone forever. Until I spotted an announcement from Unearthed Films. They had bought rights to the first made entirely in Canada animated feature film and there, front and center, was that image I'd never forgotten: the evil super-rocker Mok. The film was Rock and Rule and I knew I had to have it.

Produced by Canada's Nelvana animation studio Rock and Rule was a huge production, stretching over three years and involving hundreds of people. In fact, it was too huge. The company was run by a handful of self described aging hippies who had never worked on anything of this scale in the past and who, on a business level, were clearly in over their heads. They ran far over schedule and over budget and by the time they had finally finished their distributor had undergone a change in control and no longer had any interest in the film, giving it only the minimum level of support needed to fulfill their contract and then let it slide away into obscurity. Nelvana survived the film, their logo was nearly ubiquitous on Saturday mornings growing up, but only by moving away from animated features and working as a cheap labor shop cranking out thinly veiled product placement spots disguised as children's entertainment. Remember the Care Bears cartoons? Yeah, those were Nelvana. It must have been a bitter, bitter pill to swallow for a company that set out to be the anti-Disney ...

But don't take the business failure as a sign of poor quality. Far from it. They may have been making up their story and technique on the fly but the film itself comes off wonderfully. Rock and Rule is a decidedly adult piece of animation. It does not veer as far into extreme territory as does Heavy Metal - a production job Nelvana turned down to pursue this film - but it is clearly not children's entertainment. It was a labor of love for all involved, a counter cultural slap at the big business machine produced by a company that welcomed input from everyone involved. The end result is a film that has a completely unique look featuring some remarkable visual techniques devloped purely for this film and driven by the sounds of iconic musicians Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick and Earth Wind and Fire.

But enough of the background. Rock and Rule is set in the far future. Escalating wars have wiped out humanity and the world is now populated by highly evolved, humanoid "street animals" - mice, rats and dogs. Mok, coming across like the bastard child of Bowie, Alice Cooper and Mick Jagger, is the most successful musician Ohmtown has ever produced but his career is on the decline. He has built his flamboyantly glam live show around tech-assisted dark magic and the shtick has gotten old. People are beginning to see through the facade and so Mok, unwilling to see his fame fade away, has fixated on an ancient, coded manuscript that describes how to summon a demon from another dimension. This will put Mok back on top. This will show everyone that his magic is real, that he truly is a prince of darkness, and so he has started gathering the needed elements to summon the beast. He is missing only one thing: a perfect voice. The voice of Angel.

Angel and Omar are struggling musicians trying to build a name for themselves in the bars and clubs of Ohmtown. Their band is good but lacks focus with Omar jealously protecting his position as leader rather than recognizing the skills of his bandmates and giving them room to shine as well. When Mok hears Angel singing in a club he knows that hers is the voice he needs and sends his enormous roller-skating goons to collect her, eventually kidnapping her and taking her to sing in Nuke York threatening torture for her friends and band mates if she refuses. Can Angel, Omar and their bandmates find a way to stop Mok from unleashing this evil on the world?

We're not talking high art here, Nelvana's not about to supplant Studio Ghibli in terms of depth of story, but we are talking art nonetheless. Rock and Rule is a great ride with fantastic scope and dead solid technical underpinnings. The characters are a good mix and while the musical score is definitely of its time those times are returning in the current independent music scene in a big way making this a perfect time to bring Rock and Rule back to the masses. This is a film that has survived more than two decades on word of mouth alone and that simple fact has to tell you something: Rock and Rule will certainly not be the next Shrek but it certainly deserves, at the bare minimum, the same level of cult acclaim as has been heaped on Heavy Metal for better than twenty years. And if that is ever going to happen this is the release that will do it.

Unearthed's DVD is simply flawless on every level. The film itself has been given a frame by frame high definition restoration meaning that if you, like most of the handful who caught it in its first life, initially caught it on television you're in for a treat: the film looks far better now than it ever has. The video is crisp and clean and, of course, anamorphic. They give you the option of the original 2.0 stereo - which I prefer - or a new 5.1 sound mix. And the special features are plentiful and fantastic. There is an extended interview with the film makers in an accompanying booklet, a highly entertaining and informative commentary with director Clive Smith who seems immensly pleased that his film has been given a new shot at finding an audience, a half hour vintage 'Making Of', two complete versions of the film - the theatrical release and the Canadian television version, the 27 minute short that inspired the feature and a making of for that one as well, the complete script, workprints of the title and closing sequences, before and after restoration comparisons and extensive sketch galleries.

This is the sort of film that Unearthed could easily have snuck out on the cheap just to capitalize on the small but loyal fan base. The fact that they haven't speaks huge volumes about both Unearthed as a company and their belief that Rock and Rule has the goods to find a much larger audience and become recognized as a true classic. This is a top drawer release that puts most major label product to shame. The film itself is an awful lot of fun and the presentation gives you everything you could possibly hope for. If you're at all a fan of animation you need this. Go, now.

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LT RobertsJune 8, 2005 3:51 AM

I would love to go buy this right now, but it has not been released here (in Canada) as of yet... it's not available until June 28th from people like Future Shop, Amazon, and such... But when it does, it's mine all mine!

reneedoJune 8, 2005 5:17 AM

If they made a film like this now, I wonder which artists they would use?

ThorJune 17, 2005 3:55 AM

I saw R&R by accident, on the bottom of a double feature at a repertory theatre. I never forgot it, and for years exited rooms with Uncle Mikey's trademark "Goo' bah, an' beee good!".

I love that this disc finally exists. I only have one problem: It's too dark! If you compare the main presentation to the bonus CBC version on Disc 2, you can plainly see that an enormous amount of shadow detail has been lost to flat blackness-- the early scene of Mok in his limo eradicates his shadowed face and the smoke rings he blows, leaving only his eyes in the picture. A side-by-side comparison reveals issues like this throughout the film.

Again, I applaud Unearthed for this debut effort. I only hope we can expect a new transfer in the future.