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Feature Film

Hanna Barbera’s Lost “Rock Odyssey”

Michael Sporn led me to a new blog by Frank Forte solely devoted to Hanna-Barbera’s oddest and rarest production: Rock Odyssey (1987). Produced in the wake of Ralph Bakshi’s more adult animated features, when animation studios were attempting something a little darker, a little more edgier (think Watership Down, Rock & Rule even The Black Cauldron). The film was directed by Fritz the Cat animator Robert Taylor (though credited to Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera) and conceived to be a “rock fantasia” of sorts. It was apparently cobbled together from disparate elements, bridged with a cosmic jukebox voiced by Scatman Crothers. The final result is a mess, but it has some incredible animation, layouts and design work. Perhaps some of our readers can enlighten us further about this production.

Below is the first ten minutes of Rock Odyssey, from a version of the film prepared for broadcast as a special on ABC (It ultimately never aired in the U.S.):

  • Daniel J. Drazen

    You can see why this never went anywhere. Most of the title effects look like backscreen projections for a cheesy rock video. The “Blue Suede Shoes” number must’ve given Elvis one more reason to turn over in his grave. And Scatman is even scarier here than he was in “The Shining.” One of the reviews for “Heaven’s Gate” stated that an epic vision isn’t worth much if you can’t tell a story. This project demonstrates that without a decent story to hang it on, animation just doesn’t work — or at least THIS animation doesn’t work.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      The intro reminded me of “Saturday Supercade” personally! I’ll say the film certainly is a mess, but quite an interesting mess to behold.

      I remember someone one asking me about this years ago and I said I never heard of it either, and then later I saw it, and it’s still quite a mystery to me as well. I know a few people whom otherwise have perhaps developed their own cult following to this by now. That artblog might be the best we’ll ever have relating to anything H-B did that tried to overstep from the norm.

      Some years ago I saw an eBay auction for drawings some guy had listed that he was trying to sell off for probably $500 or so, but he did not know where they were from or what studio did them, but I spotted the girl right away and told a few others I knew these were from Rock Odyssey. I assume these are the drawings that will be placed on the artblog from whoever bought the lot.

  • Mark

    “an epic vision isn’t worth much if you can’t tell a story”

    Especially if you don’t have an “epic” vision.” Or can’t tell a story. Was dated at the time, and is nothing more than a cheap curio now. I’ll take The Jetson’s over this any day.

    “‘Twas ever thus.”

  • James

    Lynne Naylor, Charlie Downs and Marlene Robinson worked on this.

  • All I know is that Scatman Crothers used to take a short cut through our office at Hanna-Barbera.

    Scatman was always lot’s of fun and I really miss the guy. He talked about working with Stanley Kubrick on “The Shining,” and was full of Hollywood stories. The guy had an amazing career.

  • Cyber Fox

    The film is like Pink Floyd’s movie “The Wall”
    Less story, all music

    How about we all demand Warner Archives to release this on DVD?

    • Chris Sobieniak

      That would be a nice idea if that’s the least we could do. They don’t have to do anything as long as they have a master handy available to use. It’s certain that the story isn’t really that important to the music contained (itself however is all re-creations of songs relating to those periods in time). This is kinda up there with Sanrio’s “Metamorphoses” (a.k.a. “Winds of Change”). On paper it must’ve been something, but the final execution tells it’s tragedy.

    • Funkybat

      I would be amazed if this ever saw a legal video release. The big problem is that licensing of music, even if it’s a cover version, makes home video (or other media besides the initial one) releases a legal mess. Even one or two prominent songs in an otherwise royalty-free show or film could jinx it. From the looks of it, this thing is packed to the gills with songs from many different artists from 3-4 decades. Any legal agreements made in ’86 or so do not mean much for a DVD or streaming release in 2011.

      I would love to be proven wrong, as this is, as someone else said, an interesting “curio.”

  • killskerry

    What an amazing find! Even if it is a mess its such a product of the weird dark Bakshi inspired time period that you can even see it in the designs. Its garbled but the animation on the girl/girl panther is rather stunning.

    I wonder if they got Scatman Crothers on this project because of his work with Bakshi on Coonskin? (or Street Fight if you wanna be PC) People in the states knew about Coonskin…it was another violent controversial film and Scatman’s name was all over it. Attaching him to this in a weird way connects the two so maybe that’s what they had in mind? I think Coonskin was made in 1975…maybe to much time had passed by then.

    I just love unknown gems like this. Its such a delicious mystery. I hope somebody can give us directions to see the rest of the film.

    • Gray64

      Scatman Crothers had worked for HB on Hong Kong Phooey, remember. He’d done other cartoon voices too, like in the Transformers.

  • jordan reichek

    i love how Hanna-Barbera was ALWAYS 10-15 years behind the times when it came to music.

    the film definitely could use the post-production 3D upgrade in IMAX format.

    …i’d buy that for a dollar!

  • The only thing I’m impressed of is that Hanna-Barbera made this in the first place.

  • Joe

    Sounds like Frank Welker did some fill-in work for Scatman Crothers. Any idea why?

    • Scatman died in 1986 the year before this was completed/released. He was suffering from severe lung cancer that spread to his throat by the end. He probably had trouble recording some lines or died before some dialogue was recorded. I’m guessing Frank Welker stepped in to finish what he couldn’t.

      • Funkybat

        That totally makes sense. I didn’t know exactly when Scatman died, or of what, but I could hear something wrong with his voice in some parts, and I don’t mean where it sounded like someone else (presumably Welker.) There were parts where it was him, but he sounded hoarse. I suppose throat cancer will do that to you.

        I’ve been fond of Scatman Crothers since Hong Kong Phooey, and whenever he shows up in a film I find myself perked up even if the film was already entertaining. Sorry to learn he had such a rough end.

  • Clint

    I’m actually impressed! The animation sorta reminds me of Bakshi mixed with “Shinbone Alley”. Will there be any parts coming up later on?

  • I remember strolling through the studio when this was in production across the street from the main studio. They were pretty hyped on it at the time. Bakshi’s American Pop was a more complete concept even though he couldn’t get the rights to the final song he wanted to finish that film. Rock Odyssey deserves to be seen as a time capsule piece at least.

  • I’ve had heard a whole lot of stories regarding on this. And I’m surprised that it manages to get its way here, very nice find from Mr.Sporn. I’m somewhat mixed with this. It looks like Hanna-Barbara tried to do something different from their “Kid fare” style, which is both interesting and surprising coming by the guys who created Tom and Jerry and The Flintstones. Then again its not a bad idea to do something different, unless if you pull it off correctly.

    Some of that animation for its time looks like they were taking a big risk with a big budget. Most of the character designs look like they are inspired by Ralph Bakshi(including his film “Hey Good Lookin”). If this ever gets a release for DVD and Blu-ray, it has to have so much bonus features. Some of us would like to know the story behind all of this. As well as production stills, storyboards, and etc. I am wondering what would have happened if Hanna-Barbara actually gave this some thought and release it theatrically.

  • Hulk

    A few thoughts seemingly unrelated-

    1.That animation is so good, if I didn’t know it was Hanna-Barbera, I would’ve never guessed it. It must have been frustrating to work there knowing they could produce work of this quality but most of the time had to settle for the crappy limited animation the studio was known for.

    2.I wonder if the great Corny Cole worked on this. There seem to be some tell-tale signs of his style in a lot of this animation. They could’ve just been copying his work in Heavy Metal but I wonder.

    3. I’m surprised someone hasn’t said this yet. It’s interesting how certain cultural and sub-cultural contributions to society were still treated even in the 70’s and 80’s. The portrayal of the African American contribution to Rock and Roll Music is so reduced as to be almost invisible. According to this it would seem Elvis and his white greaser pals invented rock and roll…and/or one would think the music had it’s roots in Norse and keltic mythology- just look at that blonde Goddess. Yes Scatman was African American but he was portrayed as a talking in-animate object. I don’t think they’d get away with that today.

  • Inkan1969

    Is this the same Robert Taylor who was head producer of “Goof Troop” and “Bonkers”?

    • Chris Sobieniak

      Yep, same guy! He certainly has had quite a resume of stuff over the past 40 years outside of several “Disney Afternoon” classics…

  • Martin Jakobsen

    Not much to do with the – very nice – animation, but I couldn’t help noticing that a short sequence just after the one minute mark is taken from the classic music video ‘Rydeen’ by Yellow Magic Orchestra (sometimes better known as YMO), which was made in 1978 or ’79 –

    • Chris Sobieniak

      I wouldn’t be surprised they used it at all (let alone where or how they obtained it that is left to the sands of time). Some of that pixily footage also showed up in Saturday Supercade’s opening too.

    • Jeffrey Gray

      The FX at the beginning were done by a guy named Ron Hays, who also did the YMO stuff (as well as a lot of Scanimate effects for other early music videos – and the infamous Sgt. Pepper movie).

      I think Hays had a sort of assortment of “gags” he would use and re-use in various projects. Obviously, he either recycled those effects, or H-B just leased existing footage from him.

  • Samuel

    This is the same Robert Taylor, before he found Disney. Notice I didn’t say ‘Jesus’?

  • I’m not surprised that this didn’t air – honestly, I would have never known this was an HB production if the film didn’t have Joseph Barbera or William Hanna’s names on it.

  • Michel Van

    Sad, it look like “Rock Odyssey” had same problems like “Cool World”
    always interfering by the producers, here Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera
    while Robert Taylor had other vison on “Rock Odyssey” as quest for Love
    had H&B more a education “American Pop” for TV in Mind…
    wat give this unfledged mix from 1970 and 1980 style Animation.

  • This is fascinating but ultimately distressing. Random animation with no plot can be a refreshing break from overrated, traditional “storytelling”, but ROCK ODYSSEY keeps crashing to the ground with Scooby-Doo-level animation sandwiched between cheesy-but-pleasing video effects and some actual good animation. The project feels burdened under an inappropriate, aged sensibility.

    On technical issues: It would be great if YouTube offered a way to properly present interlaced files and 24/25 fps progressive files without messing them up by blindly resampling them to 30 fps.

  • Doodyville101

    This looks quite interesting. Rather unique for an H-B production – the animation and artwork are definitely much classier and more avant garde than the standard H-B fare. Definitely inspired by Bakshi’s work, but then again so were many others from that period, and even into the early 1990’s. I wouldn’t mind watching the rest of this just to see how the rest of the artwork and animation looks (especially the “psychedelic ’60s” part).

  • I had the opportunity to briefly work with Robert Taylor a few years ago. Very interesting to find out about this artifact!

    Compared to the feature animation we know today it may seem lacking, but compared to “tv movies of the 70’s”, it’s competitive.

    Robert Taylor is on Facebook and has made a few of choice comments regarding this production. You may need to be “friend” to see them.

  • joecab

    Good lord, it felt positively Filmation-esque in spots.

  • Fascinating. I can’t tell if this is supposed to remind me of the opening to that Bible Stories video of Hanna-Barbera’s on the Creation (although it does) or if it’s just test CG footage for “Jetsons: The Movie”.

  • Silence Dogood

    I think I liked Scatman better in The Aristocats…I like animation better in that one too.

  • Jeffrey Gray

    Trivia (though it may be obvious): The 1987 date is when the film was first publicly exhibited, at the Los Angeles Animation Celebration. (The L.A. Times’ animation critic Charles Solomon gave it a scathing review.)

    This film was basically done in 1981-82, with that Wham montage being added later. If Welker did fill in for Scatman, it is most likely that it was done during the 1985-86 period when they were revisiting the project. (I’ve always been amused by the fact that it seems that all the disturbing imagery that raised hackles is *intact* in the final version.)

    • Funkybat

      I was about to say that this looked much more like something from 1980-1981 or so. I figured that it was just H-B being late to the party. Does anyone know what was the cause of the break in production? (I’d assume the perennial villains, Time and/or Money.)

      What “disturbing imagery” did people object to when it was first shown? Granted, this is just the beginning, but all I saw that really bothered me in any way was the cars crashing and their oozing fluids, as if it were the blood of murder victims. Oh, and as an animator, the repeated re-use of the car crash animation bothered me, but not exactly in a “disturbing” way.

  • Steve Menke

    ‘Fraid Bakshi, Nelvana and others got there first.

    Still, this makes an interesting contrast from the same studio:

  • AaronSch

    Geesh, that clip reminded me of those old K-Tel records from the 70’s that used cover bands to “re-create” popular songs of the period. In this case, an abominable cover of Queen’s “Rock It (Prime Jive)” from the classic album “The Game.”

    It was a curious little time capsule at best.

  • purin

    This is actually pretty entertaining and out there. I just wish it didn’t have all that narration. Something this weird shouldn’t have to explain its plot and purpose.

  • SJ

    Those same words (“darker, edgier”) were what the execs wanted for the initial “Toy Story” (according to that Pixar documentary on CNBC the other night). Woody was basically an angry A-hole before Lasseter re-told the story his way.

    So can Bakshi be considered as the major influence for that mood in the industry in the 80s-90s? Animation’s “dark side”?

  • Isaac

    Reminds me of MTV’s The Maxx and Aeon Flux, they are very stylistically similar to this film.

  • TsimoneTseTse

    This is just bad animation (genre) gumbo.

    I watched this with the sound off and I kept hearing Tomita’s Also Sprach (you know the rest) in my head during the 70’s laser show.

    One has to go back to Jones’s Phantom Tollboth to see such an eclectic use of styles, backrounds & effects in a single production. The little juke-box robot is the perfect example of the Hanna-Barbera (unappealing) design from the late ’70s on. Remember the Chipmunks in powder blue tuxes?

    And Scatman, he was HB other go-to guy “Globetrotters-Hong Kong Fooey”

  • Gray64

    The film does seem very Bakshi-esque, what with some pretty good idiosyncratic animation intermixed with a lot of chaotic imagery. It does evoke Hey Good Lookin’, but I may feel that way ‘cuz all we’re seeing of it is it’s ’50’s music section. It’s not nearly as visually repetitive as Hey Good Lookin’ though (I remember when I discovered that film for the first time at my local video store; I almost turned it off at the beginning when the lead character was going through his hair combing bit, which was just so repetitive and boring; Bakshi’s one of the only filmmakers I’ve ever seen who went out of his way to make the ’50’s look dirty, ugly, and crass).
    The Jukebox, for some reason, reminds me of an old K-Tel ad…

  • Manny


    • Cyber Fox

      You and me both!

  • Jeff Pidgeon

    If you’re interested in seeing this released on dvd, you may want to tweet the Warner Archive Collection (@WarnerArchive), or leave a note on their Facebook page. They’re releasing a lot of Hanna-Barbera shows right now, and I imagine Warner Bros. owns “Rock Odyssey” as well.

    • Funkybat

      I think the Warner Archive is about the only possible hope for this getting a proper release. I do wonder if it would make it through all the music licensing hoops.

      I love that WB decided to try made-to-order DVD as a way to supply diehards and historians with copies of obscure or “unpopular” films and shows. I hope other studios and rights holders follow suit.

  • Erin T. Aardvark

    I saw this movie on some website or another, and I was like “ok, what the heck is going on here?” I’m fascinated by the dark overtones and the animation style, but I just couldn’t follow the plot. I had read about “Rock Odyssey” on Wikipedia, after finding an old “HBTV” music video tape on eBay. The video for the song “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell featured some clips to this, but I didn’t know what they were at the time, and my sister was the one who found out. What peaked my interest was the 1960’s segment. I was wondering if the darn thing really *was* as graphic as it sounded, or if it would be considered tame by today’s standards, considering this was done in 1982 (yes, you’re reading that right. It was done in 1982, and then shelved until 1987).

    So Google searching saved me a trip downtown to the Library of Congress (where “Rock Odyssey” is available for viewing, but the process to be able to view it looked like one heck of a pain in the butt, and after I saw it, I didn’t think it would have been worth the trip). And my hunch was right. Truthfully, I didn’t find the 1960’s scene as bad as I thought it was going to be. I kind of had a hunch it would be considered tame by today’s standards, but I’d still give this flick a PG rating, anyway.

  • Johnny2071

    After watching the whole special, I gotta say: Can someone PLEASE for the life of me explain the plot!? Because I could barely understand what was going down. And the English version I saw had low volume during the actual dialog parts of the film.

    But yeah, the plot itself was depressing, especially the 60’s and 70’s eras. Overall, the film when like this for me (given the lack of explanation):

    -Laura breaks up with 50’s Guy.
    -60’s Guy freaks out over being drafted to ‘Nam.
    -70’s Guy falls in to water after rescuing a whale, he’s found unconsious, disappears, Laura has a flashback with her “child self” and some other boy, who falls off an elephant and “dies”, some sea dragon appears, summons a few jagged rocks with a door the has 70’s Guy on the other side, his lobster buddy who was with Laura joins him and the door closes.
    -Laura moves into an apartment, talks to some goblin guy on the phone, works at some high-tech job, some Geraldo guy walks her to a cab, after a Hanna-Barbera montage, I think she leaves town, she THINKS she sees some familiar faces, the goblin guy finds her, he summons her past loves and morphs with her to become “the man of her dreams”.

    And I’m still confused.