American Pop is a flawed movie, full of lapses in tasted and style. Yet it's the most ambitious Hollywood movie in months, and the most fas cinating to watch. Its scope is fast, its feeling are deep, and for every nasty detail on the surface -- of which there are plenty -- there's a well of human emotion underneath.

Like some of Ralph Bakshi's other films, "American Pop" is not for young children or squeamish adults, even though it is a cartoon. Bakshi's vision is harsh, many of his characters are amoral, and he never ties pretty ribbons around his frequently grim messages.

Below this hard-boiled surface, though, beats a compassionate heart.Bakshi is madly in love with all his characters, no matter how madly misguided they may be , and there's something very moving about his desperate quest to understand what makes them tick.

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"American Pop" follows an underclass family through four generations of involvement with popular music. At the beginning, a boy escapes to the United States from czarist Russia. Later, his son gets mixed up with night-club mobsters during the prohibition era. In turn, the scion of the next generation joins the hippie movement of the 1960s; and eventually the last of the family line emerges as an ice-cold punk rocker of the '80s.

Clearly, Bashi has not chosen very attractive metaphors for these periods of American history. While his material is often seamy, though, it is never lurid. The effect is cautionary, depicting and urgently warning about the dangers of mixing music with crime and drugs. The emotional impact comes largely from the uncannily realistic animation, the brilliant performances by the actors who supply the voices, and the thread of popular music that ties the entire picture together.

Unfortunately, it is this key element -- the music -- that seriously weakens some segments. Just when we need a burst of energy, we get a watery Bob Seger song with no explanation; a 1950s classic is used to illustrate the 1980s punk scene; Dave Brubeck carries us into 1950s jazz rather than the greater John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk.

Yet when the music of "American Pop" works, it works stunningly -- as when an emotional episode is pitched to Janice Jopin's "Summertime" or a tough street scene is heightened with Lou Reed's "Waiting for My Man." For some, "American Pop" is a wildly erratic experience and another reminder that somedaym Bakshi will probably make a great fil m. This isn't it, but it's a memorable try.

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