Genuinely lost films in feature animation are so rare as to qualify as unique, but there is at least one: Hanna-Barbera’s Rock Odyssey. Intended as the rock n’ roll answer to Fantasia, Rock Odyssey was produced on-and-off over a six year period from the early-to-mid 1980s. While it’s safe to say that very few people have actually seen Rock Odyssey, I’m one who has, and I can report that it is…quite an experience.
Rock Odyssey was first pitched as an ABC television special, but it morphed into a theatrical feature when the network backed out. Lacking a cohesive storyline, it instead features four-segments narrated by an unnamed jukebox (voiced by Scatman Crothers) who follows a knockout blonde named Laura through four decades’ worth of rock music as she searches for her perfect man. All the various men merge into one superman at the end, but by that point you’re reeling from the journey. A few of the illustrated songs have a somewhat linear structure but others look more like a bad acid trip. Most bizarrely, there is an extended interstitial, added late in the game, consisting of old clips of H-B classic characters edited to appear as though they are boogying to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
The fact that Rock Odyssey looks like a collaboration between Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth kind of makes sense when one considers that the film’s co-writer and director Robert Taylor had earlier worked with Bakshi on Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic before helming the H-B feature Heidi’s Song. Happy with Heidi, Barbera gave him free reign over Rock Odyssey, which caused the Bakshi influence to re-emerge. Taylor turned the 1960s segment into a hard-edged, gun-filled, anti-Viet Nam polemic that, while fascinating in its own right, couldn’t exactly carry the ad tag, “From the makers of Heidi’s Song.”
Speaking some twenty years after the fact, H-B design genius Iwao Takamoto told me that Joe Barbera quickly realized they had a big problem with the film. “Joe, who had been so enamored of Bob [Taylor], took one look at the film and realized it was unreleasable,” he said, adding:
“Bob decided that the classic songs that would be used as the driving forces for the animation would be completely re-recorded. I tried to argue with him that the easiest thing in the world would be to buy the rights to the song and the original recording of it, but he was adamant. He wanted something new and fresh. When Rock Odyssey was finished, he got something new…a new job. Joe finally called in a veteran story man named Bill Perez and charged him with doing whatever it took to make the film work. Bill was a capable guy, but there was only so much he could do.”
Over the last few years Rock Odyssey has turned (or Turnered) up in some foreign markets, but here at home it remains a lost film. While that may not exactly be a tragedy, there’s no denying that Rock Odyssey stands as a fascinating testament to one studio’s attempt to create something hip and relevant, only to see it go horribly wrong.