It took many years for two R-rated animated features, American Pop and Heavy Metal, to be released for home viewing due to a complex myriad of music rights issues.
To see if Heavy Metal still had an audience waiting for it, Columbia briefly re-released it in theaters. I went to see Heavy Metal at my local theater that year, and saw American Pop as well, which was also released by Columbia the same year, at a revival theater.
Basically, it was a real trip to see both years after the fact. Animation has always been for kids and families, but there was a point where artists like Ralph Bakshi, director of Pop as well as Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, were trying to move the medium into serious adult territory, hoping it could compete with live action drama. (You may recall Bakshi also did the 1978 animated version of Lord of the Rings, which cost $8 million.) With American Pop and Heavy Metal in 1981, this was probably the last time feature animation was shooting for an adult audience like this.
With Pop, Bakshi said he was “Expanding the realm of animation and what it’s possibilities were. Testing myself and testing the limits of the medium was always my goal. Wanting to tell a bigger story than I’ve been telling, something more universally American.”
Again, the film was held up for nearly eighteen years over the music rights, and once it was finally available for home viewing, it was a great treat for those who grew up with it like myself.
Bakshi felt the film could have done better in its time, and he recalls, “We opened the film in major cities only, in one or two theaters which is the right way to open an art film and let the word of mouth spread. Packed houses around the clock, I mean you couldn’t get in any of the theaters. Fortunes are being made, right? Now, Columbia goes the other way. They said: ‘Oh my God, this picture’s a monster. Let’s release it in a thousand theaters.’ I said: ‘Wait a minute…you haven’t prepared the theaters, you haven’t prepared the advertising. Let the word of mouth grow, you’ll get there.’ ‘Ralph, you don’t know anything about business, sit down.’
“Two weeks after it’s initial opening to packed houses in the major cities, they released it to the suburbs, my mother’s house, the garage and basement, everywhere they could, and the picture died. Packed houses around the clock in every theater it opened! Rave reviews! The best reviews I ever got in my life. And it was going to be a smash, but they played it wrong. They got greedy.
“If my pictures were live action, I would have had an easier time,” Baskhi concludes. “The art form wasn’t respected. I was very lucky to have made the films. I don’t know how I talked them into making these movies to begin with.”