While Canada’s Nelvana Studios is more well known these days as purveyors of kiddie-fare like Max & Ruby and The Backyardigans there was a time in the 70’s and early-80’s when they produced really interesting short features for Canadian television. Founded in 1971 by Michael Hirsch, Patrick Loubert, and Clive Smith, Nelvana took it’s name from Canadian superheroine Nelvana of the Northern Lights, an Inuit crimefighter who uses the power of the Northern Lights to fight Nazi supervillains.
Their initial forays into short-form animation included A Cosmic Christmas, The Devil and Daniel Mouse, and Rome-0 and Julie-8. In 1980 the studio was asked to contribute a segment to the animated classic Heavy Metal, but they declined choosing instead to focus on their first full-length animated feature Rock & Rule. Though this turned out to be an unwise decision, it’s interesting to note the parallels between the two films – both adult-oriented science fiction fare featuring a host of popular musical acts. Both films are acknowledged to be cult classics among animation aficionados – but where Heavy Metal turned a modest profit for Columbia Pictures, Rock & Rule nearly killed Nelvana Studios with a meager box office return of $30,879 on an $8 million budget.
Box office failure aside, Rock & Rule is a fascinating product of its’ time, largely due to contributions from an incredibly interesting roster of musicians: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and perhaps most endearingly Rockford, Illinois very own Cheap Trick. The storyline, a rock mogul aspiring to raise a demon from the depths of hell in a future world populated by evolved humanoid rats, is fairly insane – but somehow it works, more often than not because of the film’s terrific soundtrack. The main characters, a hard-scrabble but heartfelt rock quartet, are clearly barely-disguised analogs for Cheap Trick themselves (although bassist Tom Petersson is given a sex change and instrument re-assignment). The film’s soaring ending chorus, a duet between Debbie Harry and Cheap Trick vocalist Robin Zander, was later re-worked by Harry as ‘Maybe For Sure’ on her third solo album Def, Dumb, and Blonde.
Though audiences and critics may have deemed it forgettable, Rock & Rule is a worthwhile artifact of 80’s animation and a highly entertaining film in its’ own right.
BONUS: The Making of Rock & Rule
EXTRA BONUS: Debbie Harry ‘Maybe For Sure’