The story behind the “lost” Hanna-Barbera animated feature Rock Odyssey has always been interesting to me. Production on the film began in 1981 (although it did not receive a screening until 1987) and was an attempt by H-B to expand its brand into the 18 to 34 year old market and to use as a training ground for new talent on full animation.
I saw the film at its one and only theatrical screening at the Second Los Angeles International Animation Celebration in July 1987 alongside other local animation enthusiasts like Jerry Beck in attendance. (Jerry was one of the programmers of that festival and was instrumental in procuring it for the event). Like many in the audience, I was as confused as I was intrigued at this H-B experiment at trying to capture a more adult audience as other animation studios were trying at the same time.
The only dialogue was done by Scatman Crothers as the “cosmic” anthropomorphic jukebox narrator and the rest of the film seemed to be a compilation of animated music videos stitched together. The videos followed a chronology from the 1950s up to 1980 (and in the later revised version into the 1980s). The premise was actually that a young blonde woman named Laura was seeking out true love in each of those different decades to the background of those familiar pop tunes.
Rock Odyssey was co-written (with Neal Barbera) and directed by former Ralph Bakshi animator Robert Taylor (who had co-directed The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat but also Hanna-Barbera’s Heidi’s Song) and was conceived according to Joe Barbera as “a rock version of Fantasia” that would appeal to a young adult audience. Taylor according to his son based the character of Laura in the feature on his own wife.
The film was meant as a follow-up to H-B’s Heidi’s Song (1982) animated feature and had been intended as a prime-time special for ABC to air sometime in the spring of 1982. H-B closed their feature animation unit after the box-office failure of Heidi’s Song but the content of Rock Odyssey also proved problematic and the key factor in it not being released was negative reactions from Taft Broadcasting executives and ABC executives that felt the approach was perhaps too “mature”.
In addition, it seemed to have similarities to Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature American Pop released in 1981 that told the story of a family of musicians through several generations and paralleling American music of the 20th Century that was used in the film.
However, H-B sought to recoup their investment by reworking the feature with veteran storyman Bill Perez (listed as “Creative Consultant” in the final version) including adding a new segment featuring clips from previous H-B cartoon shows (The Jetsons, A Man Called Flintstone, Hey There It’s Yogi Bear, Chattanooga Cats, Alice in Wonderland television special) to the song Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go to make the film more family friendly and current. ABC later announced it would air the feature sometime in late 1983. That never happened either.
The film was made available for international television distribution in 1987 and has aired in some Latin American countries and Spain but not the United States nor ever released on VHS, DVD or Bluray. It aired in Southeast Asia on television in 2010.
Robert Taylor who began his animation career in 1966 at Terrytoons with Bakshi had an eclectic career in animation. He worked with Ralph Bakshi on multiple films like Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, Wizards and more as well directing children’s animated series like TaleSpin, Goof Troop, The Flintstone Kids, and Challenge of the GoBots. After he retired, he became an accomplished jazz guitarist before passing away in 2014.
Instead of just purchasing the rights to the original recordings of the songs for Rock Odyssey, Taylor was adamant that they would be re-recorded in order to make the film more organic. So cover artists performed all the songs.
Barbera had liked the work Taylor was doing on Heidi’s Song and his background doing “edgy” work for Bakshi’s features seemed to make him ideal for doing a more adult oriented feature so Barbera gave him free reign until he found the film unusable since in some segments it was very Bakshi-esque.
Animation historian Charles Solomon likened the film in his July 13, 1987 review to the “Howard the Duck of Animation, a film so staggeringly terrible that the viewer has trouble believing a professional studio (Hanna Barbera) could knowingly create such a five-alarm disaster. The result is a cross between MTV and Saturday-morning kidvid, without the better features of either.
“Terrible renditions of various songs–“Bye, Bye Love,” “Satisfaction,” “Aquarius,” etc.–by unknown musicians are mismatched to visuals that have little to do with the lyrics or the mood. Nor are the vignettes historically correct: No one dressed like Elvis in 1952, and “Stayin’ Alive,” the 1978 disco hit, introduces the new era of the ’80s. Some bits of animation are re-used so often, they become as familiar as a high school classmate.”
Iwao Takamoto told Michael Mallory, “(Taylor) wanted something new and fresh. When Rock Odyssey was finished, he got something new…a new job.”
Finding credits for the film is challenging. The special effects at the beginning were done by Ron Hays. Lynne Naylor, Charlie Downs, Hal Ambro, Rudi Cataldi, Spencer Peel, Irv Spence and Marlene Robinson worked on the film.
As Pete Alvardo who did layout on the film told John Cawley, “I had a lot of hope for Rock Odyssey. I think we did a lot of nice work on that thing, but it just never seemed to get off the ground. I think most of us in the business are so close to these things, we don’t really know sometimes.”
When Scatman Crothers died in 1986, Frank Welker stepped in to do additional voice-over as the jukebox. Crothers had done cartoon voice work for Hanna-Barbera including the character Hong Kong Phooey as well as work for other studios like Disney’s animated feature The Aristocats (1970).
The whole film is like some unintelligble dream sequence or drug hallucination.
The 1950s was focused on hot rod greasers with a film noirsh background although at one point in the song Blue Suede Shoes, Laura and her guy change into dancing shoes. The boyfriend gets beaten up by a biker gang that look like green-skinned hogs.
The 1960s had the guy drafted to go to Vietnam and the two young lovers are very much hippie flower children. There are references to the war, drugs and the police who are portrayed as mean-spirited literal pigs. At one point the boy imagines himself in heaven and hell and the girl dreams of being a bag of french fries being pursued by a salt shaker.
In the 1970s, the pair meet aboard a ship while they are trying to “save the whales” from evil fishermen. Laura has a flashback to her “child self” with a boy who falls off an elephant and dies. A sea dragon summons up some sort of portal where Laura is reunited with her boyfriend. There is some partial female nudity in this decade.
In the 1980s, instead of mocking the Punk scene, the young lovers are Yuppies with good jobs but there is also some type of a goblin character who summons Laura’s past lovers and merged them into the “man of her dreams” for supposedly a happy ending.
For those who are dying to see it – here is an absolutely horrible copy of the first 16 minutes: