“Evil Spelt Backward is Live”: Magic Science and Apocalyptic Song in Rock & Rule (1983)

Imagine a realm where those who rock, rule. A frightening world of anthropomorphic creatures and psychedelic science, all helmed by a terrifying pair of Jagger lips. A world where music can unite and destroy in a very literal sense. You don’t have to dream it, all these things appear in the cult classic Rock & Rule, a film which ushered a new era of animation and rock epic into being. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and likely ever will.

I’ve written about Devils on this site, on fiendish apocalypses and horror, and even on foolish musicians who sell their souls. I’ve never discussed the film which perfectly combines these features: Rock & Rule. The film is a mainstay of midnight cinema and adult animation, but more importantly, it’s Canadian, which I take great pride in.

The film is not particularly well known outside of this midnight circuit, as unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or even Phantom of the Paradise (1974), it never received much mainstream attention, especially as its creators moved away from adult animation shortly after. In fact, if you look up the director, Clive Smith, his most notable credits are for producing children’s works like Rollie Polie Olie and Babar. This might seem like a drastic shift from Rock & Rule, but the production company Nelvana Limited has always been known for creating content for Canadian children. They did so before the film and after; Rock & Rule was actually their first feature length project. I had no idea that the shows I grew up with were created by a company who had also crafted this insane rock epic. It’s quite the juxtaposition. The film is incredible, but more than that, it is entirely unique and remains as compelling and influential as when it was released in 1983. It deserves far more attention, and that is my primary goal with this post.

“I didn’t offer you anything. I offer you EVERYTHING!”

About a year ago, as I scoured the internet looking for bizarre horror musicals- a totally normal thing to do on a Saturday night- I came across this insane jukebox musical. It’s not really a horror film, more like a clash of Mad Max Fury Road (2015) and Blade Runner (1982), plus some R-rated Disney castoffs. There is a demon fight though, and some weird drug trips. So, it’s horror-esque, although I would argue that Monk’s mouth is its most horrifying feature.  

The film was not popular upon release, but it did gather a small and dedicated cult audience which continues to screen the film. People generally stumble across it because of their interest in other things. For me, it was my interest in bizarre rock musical films. For others, it may be Iggy Pop or Debbie Harry’s presence. Or the animation style, whose neon tones and industrial features are revolutionary. I mention this because the film’s impact is rather eclectic. It’s known in certain circles, but for a variety of different reasons. That eclectic nature in both reception and narrative is key to its ongoing cult status.

“She can sing, or she can scream. But she still pissed me off.”

A jukebox musical means that many of the songs were not specifically written for the film, rather, they are strung together by the story. A few big tracks, like “Dance Dance Dance” and “Born to Raise Hell” were adjusted for the film but were also released by the artists separately. For instance, Debbie Harry is Angel’s singing voice, not her speaking, and she later re-recorded “Angel’s Song” with new lyrics as “Maybe For Sure” and released it in 1989. This means that the film’s music operates somewhat outside of the film, it has a detached life. The film technically features Harry, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick, and Earth, Wind & Fire, but none of these people were directly involved with the film or its characters. Their songs were added to characters who already had defined speaking voices. This creates a rather strange effect, as though music from our world is possessing these characters, moving from reality to this dystopian animation.

I think the slight disjoint between the character’s singing and speaking voices adds to the film’s ongoing discussion on otherworldly music and its ability to transport, unify, and commercialize. As the film’s title suggests, the ability to rock is directed tied to the ability to rule, whether that is the audience, the universe, or confines of time and space. Even the & symbol in the title looks like a treble clef, as though language and musical linguistics have collapsed onto one another and are now synonymous.   

The film spends time animating what music looks like, not just what it sounds like. It gives singing and rhythm visibility, and thus a certain degree of power. A person can be literally struck by music in the film, or dance around little strands of it. The film’s tagline is, “Sound you can see in the movie you can feel”, which ties our internal experience (hearing/feeling) to our external (visible/tangible shapes). Likewise, the strings of music, which bounce off rings and walls, are a form of archaic magic in the film. Each of the characters deals with the relationship between music and magic differently, as some try to capitalize and gain power from it, while others use it to connect with their bandmates and audience, which the film ultimately argues is the better thing to do.

“My vengeance…destroy them all!”

To briefly summarize, Rock & Rule takes place in a dark and electronic post-nuclear city. Its prologue declares that some mysterious Great War wiped out everything except for “street animals: dogs, cats, and rats”, and they have since evolved into human-like beings. This world is largely controlled by a mysterious musician named Mok, who is universally adored and worshiped, although his last concert did not entirely sell out. Afraid that he is becoming irrelevant, and angry that his fans have ‘abandoned’ him, Mok decides to summon a demon to kill everyone and give him complete control over the world. Just a side note, this is probably the craziest revenge plot I’ve ever seen in a film, and I love it. Destroying the world because of bad ticket sales, not even bad, is the most campy and ridiculous rational I’ve heard of. That important note said, the film follows a struggling band as they try to define themselves and their music. Both their guitarist, Omar, and keyboardist, Angel, write music and want to perform their own songs with the band. They have radically different styles, as Omar performs Cheap Trick songs, which are very anti-establishment and loud, while Angel sings new-age and almost hypnotic rock. Mok, meanwhile, is obsessed with finding the Armageddon Key, a tone which when sung by a living voice in a specific formation will open a gate to hell and unleash a terrible demon. When Mok discovers Angel at a nightclub, and realizes that her voice is the perfect frequency, he kidnaps her and begins his devilish plot. The rest of the film follows the band as they try to save Angel and the world from Mok.

The world in Rock & Rule is like something out of a David Lynch film, with high industrial buildings and steam work. Although it looks vaguely like our own, there are a few moments which suggest that this world has evolved drastically from what we know, not just beyond humans, but beyond morals. During the Club 666 scene, Angel and Cindy, the sister of Mok’s triplet bodyguards, watch as the bouncer exterminates a group of mutants. These mutants are totally gray and a different shape than our heroes, not human, but almost zombie-like. Cindy cheers as the guard disintegrates the last mutant, and then notes than this is a mutant free zone because they are such party killers. This remark suggests that the mutants are not dangerous, just buzzkills, which is enough of a reason to kill them. This is the only time we see mutants in the film, and it’s a short moment at that, but it suggests that evolution is still happening. While certain groups have become human-like dogs, cats, and rats, something else has clung on. Perhaps the mutants are what’s left of the humans, as they are wearing clothes like the other citizens, but something is wrong with them.

It’s noteworthy that the prologue emphasizes that “street animals” are the only ones to survive and evolve, as though their place on the streets was crucial to that evolution. Their dismissed and discarded state. This emphasis relates to one of rock’s major themes, it’s fixation on a hero who rises from some discarded state, through the power of music, to dismantle a corrupt institution. That outsider figure translates into the evolutionary path of this world. The only creatures who could evolve were literally outside figures, creatures who belong to the streets, as does their revolutionary and gritty music. Another way the film emphasizes that rock mentality is ingrained in this anthropomorphic evolution is through Mok. In a conversation between Mok and his dimwitted bodyguard, Mok notes society has evolved beyond good and evil, especially as “Evil spelt backwards is Live”.

The film eventually argues that this is the wrong perspective, and the good and evil are still very present, but Mok’s moral ambiguity is still noteworthy. He is entirely narcissistic, and so the world isn’t good or evil to him, it’s all just a step towards what he wants, which is the only thing worth fighting for. Whatever definitions people put onto his actions are their opinion and are not as important as his ambition. However, the film punishes Mok for this belief, as he ultimately fails and dies because of his own evil deeds. He is destroyed by the chaos he tried to bring into the world, and by the power of good music, not ‘good’ as in skillful but music which is morally good. Angel and Omar’s duo contradicts everything about Mok’s individualistic character, but also returns to this rocker against the institution model. Rock music might be loud and occasionally violent, like Omar’s “Born to Raise Hell” song, but it’s still nobler than Mok.

“We all have our illusions, far be it for me to take away yours.”

There are some familiar things about this world, little cues for the audience. This might be some future world, where humans no longer exist, but our rock music does. For instance, in one early shot, we see a string of Bowie-like caricatures in Aladdin Sane makeup as they leave a stage, all connected by their guitars like some strange marionette. The creators initially wanted David Bowie and Mick Jagger to appear in the film, but they couldn’t afford them, and so the film cut and sliced. It turned to indirect reference. That means that the creators make references to these rock figures by using their likeness, without being too alike. It is a difficult balance, which doesn’t always work. Mok’s original name, for example, was Mok Swagger, which they had to change after Jagger found out. Mok is still clearly an adaptation of Jagger and Bowie, but it’s never outright said in the film. The audience can say it, but the film can only imply it casually.

I am really interested in this adaptation/reference style, as it suggests that a person’s image and outward representation works independently from them, that a certain degree of it transfers into the free use public domain. It’s like drawing someone on a bus and then publishing that image without telling your unwilling model. By drawing, you can separate the person from their image, and even blend persons. Mok is a fusion of Bowie, Jagger, and Lou Reed, who is Mok’s singing voice. But as mentioned, Reed is not really involved with the film, he wrote a song for Mok, “My Name is Mok”, but he doesn’t appear as the character. It’s more like Mok is appearing as Lou Reed than vice versa. We have this degree of interpretation and separation between original and image, musician and rendering. I feel like it adds to the film’s depiction of music as some otherworldly magic, where musicians are as much an instrument of something larger as their guitars are to a song. For example, Angel’s voice is perfect not because it sounds amazing, but because it hits a certain measurable frequency. She is like some ancient chord, used to compose something else. The film eventually argues that musicians are a part of something larger than themselves, as they resonate with their audience. That is the same audience watching the film, fans of Bowie and Jagger who bring that influence with them and recognize when it is referenced. Remember, the film operates off the belief that sound should be seen, hence the tagline, and so it visualizes the music we love into characters. Mok in that regard is not just an adaptation of Bowie or Jagger, or even Lou Reed, but of their music. The way the sound should look, not just how it does. The exaggerated lips and strange inhuman features are a representation of their rock music. That goes for the other characters too, as both Angel and Omar look like a blend of different artists and genres. Omar is strictly hard rock, much like the singer Robin Zander, while Angel is closely tied to rock and pop, particularly singers like Debbie Harry.

“Survivors described the destruction as ‘evil,’ ‘spooky,’ and ‘wow, bad karma man’”.

The characters in Rock & Rule make a clear distinction between magic and science, but the film suggests that they are the same. Mok is widely known as Magic Man, because of his trippy effects and the way he can seemingly manipulate reality. He is sort of a Jareth prototype, from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), as both figures look vaguely similar and hold immense power and egos. What distinguishes them is that Mok’s power is entirely artificial and scientific. The film introduces this early on, as the first time we see Mok, he is driving to a nightclub in long limousine, and we transition from his eyes to the car tail lights. This juxtaposition implies that Mok is mechanical, just like the car. This comparison distinguishes him from the other characters, as although they use technology, Mok is technology. He is consistently tied to machines, much like the giant brain and computer creature he keeps in his air balloon. This hybrid computer does his scientific work, and Mok also has a panel of robot lawyers. He might be the most emotional person in the film, about himself, but he is likewise tied to these logic-based devices.

For example, the first time we see Mok’s face, just briefly, is when his ring detects Angel’s song and begins to light up. That artificial light defines his features to the audience, introduces him to us. But all that tech power also means that Mok is reliant on something he cannot control directly. Mok’s bodyguards and machines create his elaborate lightshows, and his apparent power. There are even a few scenes where his guards miss their cues, and Mok begins shouting at them. His ‘magic’ appears seamless to his guests and fans, but the film audience sees just how dependent he is. Mok initially fails to summon the demon because he does not have enough electrical power, and this forces him to hold another concert in a power plant. Mok’s failure in the film is that he overestimates what power he already has, and that is both literal (needing a new venue) and symbolic. What Mok forgets is that this world is defined by music, not tech prowess. To rock is to rule, and Mok has lost focus on his music and become less popular as a result.

Mok believes that magic is a gimmick, much like a persona you use on stage. That does not stop other characters from assuming he has magic power, and that he can hex people. While Mok insists that he is scientific to the audience, he also admits the duality between science and magic, noting, it’s “a scientific breakthrough for me, an unforgettable magic show for the masses”. The film argues is that science is magical, it’s so wonderous that it can hypnotize characters. When we first meet bandmates Stretch and Dizzy, Stretch is playing a video game backstage and cannot stop until he beats the level. He begins to lose control of the game and can only walk away after Dizzy unplugs it. This is the first of many scenes where our heroes become hypnotized by technology. Later, when the band arrives at Mok’s mansion, Mok hands Omar and Stretch these light balls which act like psychedelic drugs. Each of these sequences suggests that science is a stylized thing, as we never get an explanation for how it works, but it looks somewhat scientific, and Mok emphasizes that it is. Image is everything in the film, and Mok understands that as he uses what looks like magic to seem powerful. This means that science to Mok emphasizes style over content. Mok’s songs are a good example of this emphasis. His lyrics in “My Name is Mok” are basic, as the song is just about his name, however, the way that name is presented stands out. The style of it, not the song’s literal content.

We shift away from style over content at the end of the film, particularly through Angel and Omar’s song. Angel’s music stands apart in the film as it always emphasizes content with style. Her songs apply to specific situations, even in her first scene. “Angel’s Song” is about wanting to be noticed, and at the time, she is talking about Omar. Her name might be crucial to the song, like Mok’s name is crucial to “My Name is Mok”, but it is about more than her. Later in the film, when she sings a version of that song to distract the creature from another dimension, her lyrics “Oh, what will the signal be for your eyes to see me?” are once again literal. She is trying to get the demon’s attention, and her singing is the signal that both summons and banishes it. Her content is as important as the way she presents that content, and that is what makes her song so powerful, especially when Omar joins and becomes part of the signal. It is also noteworthy than Angel has a living voice, versus Mok’s computer generated sounds. The one condition for Mok’s plan is that the Armageddon Key must come from a living voice, not a digital. Mok cannot conjure or manufacture the voice, it must be authentic. That authenticity can also be said of Angel’s content, as she is singing from her heart, and only for love. Angel’s voice or sound, and its style, is thus synonymous with her music, or content. By focusing on Angel, the film suggests that life/living voices are crucial to that authenticity, just as life will always be crucial to rock music.

The only thing which can defeat Mok’s demon is “one voice, one heart, and one song”. Mok assumes that this is one person, as his computer says the word ‘one’ three times and announces that “no one person” exists who could stop his plan. It’s revealed in the finale that this “one voice” comes from two people singing united, forming one ambition and goal together. The film demonstrates here that music is a united force, a group effort. Going solo, like Mok, is not enough, you need people to listen and to participate. When we meet Angel and Omar, they are still fighting over whose song to use, who is the stronger singer. Their songs are also working in direct opposition of one another, as Omar sings about hating everything while Angel sings about wanting everything. The ending suggests that they are a duo, that they work best together and so does the world. It cannot be the Me versus Everything model which Mok relies on; it must be more unified.

“Oh, What Will the signal be for your eyes to see me?”

Selling your soul for rock and roll is not a rare concept, and even this project is an adaptation of an earlier work. Before Rock & Rule, there was The Devil and Daniel Mouse (1978), a short TV special made by the same creators. This earlier work is more direct with its Orpheus message, arguing that music is ultimately what unites us all and it can move and transcend even the unmovable aspects of life, like death. It also emphasizes the power of hope, by praising naïve emotion in the face of a much larger power, often a wealthier power. Both The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Rock & Rule argue that capitalism ultimately destroys artistry and authenticity, as musicians become entire independent and, without a source of companionship and collaboration, the world becomes dysmorphic. The primary message in any good rock musical is that the heroes must reject authority and capital, no matter the temptation. Rock & Rule makes this message quite obvious, as the characters eventually choose to rock rather than rule, to make music and hope that some people will enjoy it, rather than selling out and kickstarting the apocalypse. No one rules at the end of the film, Mok fails, and the demon disappears. I think this demonstrates that the Rule in Rock & Rule is momentary. When you are on stage, performing to an adoring audience, you literally rule that moment and capture everyone’s attention. Mok never wanted that attention to waver or end, and so he tried to obtain permanent power. By defeating this evil, Angel and Omar become stars, but even then, we know it is momentary. The celebration that follows Mok’s apocalypse concert will die down, but unlike Mok, Angel and Omar have each other and understand that this power is momentary.

What I especially love about Rock & Rule is that Angel is not some passive figure. She might be kidnapped, but she is no damsel. She actively fights to escape and to stop the apocalypse, and even when she needs rescuing, she decides to sacrifice herself to the demon and begins sing in the face of absolute terror. It’s not that Omar saves her by singing along, it’s that they save each other at the same time. They are equally responsible, hence the “one heart” proclamation. Together, as a band, they can stop chaos from reigning.