An impressive labor of love, “Death of a Rockstar” is a mesmerizing ode to rock ‘n roll, the creative spirit, and individualism.
I’m a sucker for a years-long passion project. There’s something fascinating about an artist so committed to their own unique vision that they would rather go it alone than compromise in any way, and few mediums lend themselves better to this kind of obsession than animation.
An incredibly painstaking process, even with a huge team, it’s no wonder that animators can take years, even decades, to finish a work.
One such obsessive is a man known only as Röckët Stähr, animator, director, writer, composer, orchestrator, singer, musician, chief cook, and bottle washer of the animated rock opera Death of a Rockstar. I probably left a few jobs off that list, but you get the idea.
According to the synopsis, Death of a Rockstar took a full 13 years to complete, with the animation alone taking eight years.
Regardless of the end product, you have to give it up for that level of dedication. Though with that amount of time and energy invested, it would be a shame if he ended up with a real turkey.
Luckily, however, Death of a Rockstar is a thoroughly charming, funny, loving experience from start to finish.
Stähr name checks several of the most iconic rock operas and musicals as inspiration, from Tommy to Jesus Christ Superstar to Yellow Submarine, and his own creation manages to conjure the spirit of those classics.
Stähr is extremely dedicated to the art of good old classic rock n’ roll, filling his movie with references to classic album covers and iconic figures in rock history.
Fellow rock nerds such as myself will no doubt have fun playing “spot the reference,” though maybe don’t make a drinking game out of it for your own safety.
It’s 2165, and the world has been taken over by theocratic authoritarians. As they’re wont to do, they’ve managed to stifle all independent thought, essentially turning the citizens into mindless followers, forcing anyone who dares speak for themselves to fight in pointless, endless wars.
Inspired by the rebellious rock gods of old, an underground scientist named Creigh A. Tor (most of the names are like that) decides to clone himself to create a four-armed, impressively-maned rock star named, appropriately enough, Röcky Stähr, who can free the minds of the populace with the power of loud guitars and crunchy riffs (in one of the movie’s many funny visual gags, they do this in part by feeding a rock magazine into a machine labeled “Picture to Life Force Converter”).
It seems to work for a while, as their followers grow and Röcky falls in love with a teenage runaway named Ronnie Waye (the only character not voiced by Stähr, instead voiced by Abby Ahmad).
But their mission starts to lose its way as it becomes clear that their adoring fans have simply swapped one god for another.
Death of a Rockstar is presented as a sort of moving comic book, or maybe a riff on the old “follow the bouncing ball” singalongs, with most of the songs’ lyrics appearing on screen as Stähr or Ahmad sing them. This actually proves pretty helpful at times, especially during the more densely worded sections.
Stähr has a lot of fun with the movie’s visual language, packing it with funny gags and references to old movies, taking full advantage of the plasticity of the animated medium.
The line drawings and “2D as 3D” look conjure the feeling of flash animation circa the early 2000s, which gave me a rush of nostalgia for my own adolescence when I was falling in love with music.
And speaking of which, a movie with wall-to-wall music wouldn’t be worth much if that music wasn’t good, and Death of a Rockstar’s score is very good, ranging from Elton John-esque piano pop to Ziggy Stardust glam to strummy folk rock to Beach Boys harmonies and beyond.
Stähr clearly knows his stuff, and he’s got the vocal and musical chops to back it up, as does Ahmad.
It maybe could’ve benefited from a few more voices to mix things up, though that also may have detracted somewhat from the movie’s singular handmade vision.
It’s clear that Stähr wanted to craft a loving tribute to the music closest to his heart, and he certainly succeeded on that front.
But Death of a Rockstar also has something to say about the dangers of hero worship and humanity’s desire for saviors.
Creigh A. Tor hopes his creation will encourage people to rebel against their oppressors and start thinking for themselves again, but he mostly succeeds in creating someone else for people to follow blindly.
Rock’ n’ roll is a genre built on rebellion, on thumbing your nose at society’s expectations, but that rebellion can still be co-opted, commercialized, and commodified.
Giving up our individualism is dangerous, whether it’s in the service of religious authoritarians or rock stars, and Stähr seems to say that being free to express ourselves in any way we can is the most important thing we can do, even if that expression rubs some people the wrong way.
It’s an important message in an era where the idea of “free speech” means different things to different people.
As a creative myself, I really can’t imagine sticking with one project for so long, and the fact that Stähr was able to stick the landing after all that time is very impressive indeed.
If the rock gods are just and merciful, Death of a Rockstar will continue to be discovered and enjoyed for years to come.