"Bushhead" the Story of the Movie We Should Have Made

The drive home was nothing less than exhilerating. I had just left a Hollywood rehearsal hall where I had the opportunity to observe the amazing Smokey Robinson and his troupe prepare for an upcoming performance. We had just left the nearby Motown offices on Sunset boulevard where our little creative group had been hard at work developing a new animated feature motion picture. And, what a group it was. Our team consisted of the iconoclastic Disney background artist, Walt Peregoy, team park developer, Gary Goddard and animation producer, Leo Sullivan. Finally, the artistic development was being led by one of the most talented guys in the cartoon business. The brilliant artist and animation conceptualist, Phil Mendez. The project was one of the most audacious, innovative movie projects I’ve ever shared in my career. Bankrolled by Mr. Robinson himself, the feature length cartoon intended to turn the industry on its ear. We were developing a movie like no other and if things went well, we intended to be Hollywood’s new animation leaders.

It was the nineteen seventies, and the animation business was on life support. Out in Burbank, the once celebrated Walt Disney Studios was in a death spiral. Creative talent was hardly being encouraged at the mouse house and those who showed any creative spirit at all were regarded as “troublemakers.” Disney had already booted out Brad Bird, Tim Burton and John Lasseter was soon to follow. I had already been sacked in early 1972 after meeting the talented Phil Mendez. It was little wonder that Walt’s famed studio was floundering while other progressive filmmakers such as Steven Speilberg and George Lucas were eating Disney’s lunch. Phil Mendez was an unpredictable, explosive talent. He was the kind of guy the Old Maestro would have embraced and exploited. Predictably, the house of mouse took a guy who could have saved their bacon and shoved him out the door. It was pretty much understood if anything great was going to be done in animation - it sure wasn’t going to happen at the Walt Disney Studio.

The decade of the seventies brought many social changes. Young men began sporting beards, long hair and sandals. Of course, the girls wore hip hugging bell bottoms and platform shoes were all the rage. To be sure, the old guard thought the world was totally going to hell as Isaac Hayes performed “Shaft” at the Academy Awards wearing a platinum chain t-shirt. It was in this crazy, shifting invironment we began to develop an animated motion picture we called, “Bushhead.” Inspired by the music of Smokey Robinson, Bushhead was a prehistoric kid of color who lived during the time of the dinosaur. Naturally, in this fanciful film we played free and loose with time and history. It was just a heck of a lot more fun to have our hero, Bushhead ride his pet dinosaur. Keep in mind this was decades before films like Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” mixed reptiles with humans. Working in Hollywood’s Motown headquarters we hashed out character and production designs. We created rooms of storyboards detailing the wacky, prehistoric storyline. Composer, Smokey Robinson often met with us to discuss songs and storylines while dining on a delicious plate of ribs and collard greens from the nearby soul food restaurant. Motown music filled the air along with the fragrance of the “funny little cigarettes” that were popular during the era.

A good deal larger than most conference rooms, the upstairs Motown space was filled with colorful production design paintings and a series of elaborate storyboards. On the day of the presentation to Berry Gordy we were visited by “wise guys,” Joey and Carmine. At least that’s what their names should have been. They gave the large room a once over looking for hidden cameras or secret recording devices. I was never sure whether their concern was protecting us - or Mr. Gordy. In any case, the Motown boss did not make an appearance until the room was deemed “safe.” The “Bushhead” presentation was now underway. Much of the pitch was led by Phil who even got down on all fours mimicking the dinosaur dancing to the music. Our villian was an evil witch doctor and when it came to his scene, composer, Smokey Robinson couldn not resist getting involved. Channeling the movie bad guy, he waved his arms wildly while doing his evil incantation. I’ve done my fair share of movie pitches during my career and on occasion one stands out as magical. I’ve little doubt that all of us were thinking, what an amazing movie this is going to be.

Such was not to be. Motown had another movie project brewing at Universal Studios and they decided to pass on “Bushhead” and put their money on a sure thing called, “The Wiz.” The animated feature film, “Bushhead” was put on the backburner and eventually forgotten. In time, “The Wiz” would prove to be a motion picture musical disaster opening to luke warm reviews and even worse box office. In my humble opinion I would add that Motown and Universal made the wrong choice. The filmmakers gave us a leaden, musical mishmash that utilmately failed to find an audience. “Bushhead” would have been a movie ahead of its time. It was a bold, bright comtempory telling of a caveman drama filled with the cool, hip sounds of the seventies. It would have made every other animated film look old and stodgy. Plus, we could have moved cartoon animation in a bold new direction. But, that was then - and this is now. The animated feature film, “Bushhead” is a movie you’ll never see. However, it sure the heck is the movie we should have made.