If you’re an animation geek you’ve probably heard of all the animated cartoon features that were produced over the last twenty years. Should you really be into this odd and quickly business you may even know a few of the motion pictures that never made it through the production process and realized as a finished film. This is the story of one such cartoon film and you’ve probably never even heard of it. The feature length animated movie was titled, “BushHead,” and it is a tale worth telling.
Here’s how the story goes. Back in the seventies I was busily animating for a sizable animation company here in the Southland when I was summoned to a late evening meeting in a Sunset Boulevard tower. I parked my vehicle on the street (yes, there was parking still available back then) and headed into the building. Suddenly I realized this was no ordinary enterprise. I found myself in the swanky Hollywood offices of MoTown where it appeared every women you met was either a singer, actress or model. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention when the famous hit record company decided to pull up their Detroit stakes and head west for Tinsel Town and a fling with the glamorous movie business. I’m sure you remember Motown as the legendary record company that nurtured and developed the recording stars of the sixties. It was an impressive list topped by, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. Of course, that list included, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. But, we’ll get to Smokey in a minute. Motown provided the living soundtrack for many kids growing up during that turbulent and exciting time. These thoughts swirled through my head as I was directed upstairs to the Penthouse where my animation colleagues would be awaiting my arrival.
As expected, the Hollywood penthouse was expansive with a view of the city along with paneled walls and a well stocked bar. My animation colleagues lounged on plush sofas scattered throughout the large room as they enjoyed the Southern California sunset. At that point in my career I had attended meetings at a fair number of Hollywood studios but none quite like this. It was already evident this cartoon venture was going to be unlike any other in my long career. What was this cartoon experiment, you ask? It was called, “BushHead,” and the animated film was the brainchild of popular entertainer, Smokey Robinson. You see, back in the seventies, animation had become comatose. Nothing exciting was coming out of the mainstream studios and only filmmaker, Ralph Bakshi dared challenge the cartoon status quo. It was a time ripe with opportunity for young animated filmmakers eager to try something new. Lucky for us, we had just that. Our little team consisted of top filmmakers from every studio in town. Our film idea was novel and unique and didn’t include blonde European princesses. Set in prehistoric Africa, our animated characters were black. You heard right. This film would feature a black hero, a black princess and a black villain. No animation studio in history had ever attempted a black animated musical and we were going to be the first.
Before long, the penthouse walls were filled with incredible development artwork and gorgeous background paintings. My little story team cranked out a series of storyboards in a large room toward the back of the penthouse suite. I still remember the gaudy, gilt encrusted bathroom where Donald Trump would have felt at home. There would be music, of course, and songwriter, Smokey Robinson would deliver a marvelous score that would have the film audience jumping out of their seats. In time, the art and storyboards were ready to show, and our audience would be none other than the Motown titan himself, Berry Gordy. We were all brimming with anticipation on the day of the presentation. The president of the successful record company arrived with a good deal of fanfare and made his way around the room shaking hands with the development team. Our creative director was in charge of making the pitch to Mr. Gordy, but before long, world famous entertainer, Smokey Robinson could no longer contain himself. Smokey literally jumped into the movie pitch and began acting out the story. When it came to our evil villain, the Witch Doctor, Smokey stood on a chair, waved his arms and began doing incantations. The entire room erupted in cheers and applause and it was a performance I doubt I’ll ever forget.
For one reason or another, “BushHead” the motion picture would never see the light of day. The film languished in turnaround and was eventually forgotten. Universal and Motown focused their attention on another movie project that seemed to have more promise. It was a movie version of the Broadway hit, “The Wiz.” Frankly, I think they put their money on the wrong project. In many ways, “BushHead” could have had a profound impact on popular culture in the seventies. Much the same way “Yellow Submarine” and The Beatles defined the sixties. But, such was not to be. “BushHead” was the animated black musical feature film that never got made. It joins other forgotten chapters in my “animated book.” A book that, on occasion, I’m willing to share with you.