Synopsis: From director George Lucas (Star Wars) and producer Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), American Graffiti is a classic coming-of-age story set against the 1960s backdrop of hot rods, drive-ins and rock n’ roll. Starring Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips and Suzanne Somers in their breakout roles, this nostalgic look back follows a group of teenagers as they cruise the streets on their last summer night before college. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, American Graffiti features the howling sounds of Wolfman Jack and an unforgettable soundtrack with songs by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys and Bill Haley & His Comets.
American Graffiti 8.25
eyelights: its ensemble cast. its natural performances. its mixture of light comedy and drama. its realistic vibe.
eyesores: its finale. its length.
“Jesus, what a night!”
Say what you will about George Lucas, but before his corny ‘Star Wars‘ prequels and the many alterations that he made to the originals, he had a pretty terrific track record. He didn’t only have box office hits to his credit, but he mostly did, and they were often monster successes – case-in-point, the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ trilogies.
And ‘American Graffiti’.
‘American Graffiti’ was Lucas’ first win. Released in 1973, it was a sleeper hit: Universal Pictures was initially planning on putting it out as a TV movie, but there had been a test screening and word of mouth grew until the studio had to change its plan. Momentum continued to build and, by the end of its run, ‘Graffiti’ grossed 55 million dollars.
It was so popular that it was later re-released with a few additional scenes (that the studio had forced Lucas to cut, but that he now had the clout to re-insert) and it cashed in another 66 million dollars! It had become one of the biggest grossers in history at the time and Lucas was now wealthy – and powerful enough to get ‘Star Wars’ made.
Not bad for a low-budget picture!
I first saw ‘Graffiti’ when it was re-released on VHS as a 25th anniversary special edition – in widescreen, THX mastered, and with a bonus featurette. It was the best way to see the picture back then, with the exception of the cost-prohibitive laserdisc, so I picked it up when the price became right. I honestly had no idea what to expect…
But I loved it.
What makes ‘American Graffiti’ so enjoyable is that it’s a love letter to an era gone by, where smalltown teens hung out at the local diner, cruised the strip in their cars, and hung out all night. It’s not so much the era that’s important as Lucas’ clear affection for the people, place and time – which are all based on his own fond teen memories.
The picture takes us to the end of the school year, the night before Steve and Curt are due to leave for college. It’s the last time that they’ll get to hang out with their crowd (Terry and John, their best friends, and Laurie, Steve’s longtime steady) for at least a few months. So they try all to have a few laughs before the group is split in two.
‘American Graffiti’ is a nostalgic and endearing look at a group of friends and their extended entourage that feels relatively real due to natural performances and inspired editing choices (which include spontaneous moments like imperfect takes and improvised dialogues). It’s so true-to-life, that it makes the viewer want to be there too.
Most teen dramedies couldn’t claim the same.
I mean, who wouldn’t want the comfort of close-knit ties with old friends? Or want to hang out at Mels Drive-In restaurant, a neon-lit, glossy beauty that is served by lovely rollergirls? Or want to experience the ritualistic nighttime drag of the lowbeam-lined main strip, where everyone talks to each other through their car windows?
I know I’d have love that – even if it were for just one night.
The soundtrack also brings the picture to life: backed strictly by rock and roll songs of the era, and with no traditional score whatsoever, one truly gets the vibe of what it must have been like to be there in the moment. There’s no embellishing music to add a fake veneer to the proceedings; everything that we hear is a part of the film’s reality.
(The music plays such a significant part, in fact, that most of the end credits are music credits.)
There’s also the near-omnipresence of Wolfman Jack, who was a popular DJ back in George Lucas’ days and who plays himself in the film. Everywhere the kids go, the radio is on, and everywhere the radio is on, there’s Wolfman Jack, taking calls from listeners and cracking wise on the air. That also carries us into the moment, making it feel true.
The cast is stellar, and most wound up having a long career in Hollywood, starting with Ron Howard as Steve, Richard Dreyfus as Curt, Cindy Williams as Laurie, and Charles Martin Smith as Terry. It also boosted the careers of Candy Clark as Debbie, Paul Le Mat as John, and Mackenzie Phillips as Carol, a young teenager who John is stuck with.
Oh, and let’s not forget Harrison Ford’s cameo as Bob, who steals every scene he’s in, his innate charm already apparent.
Having said this, Lucas’ script (which he co-wrote with a few people) makes the characters three-dimensional, giving them real concerns, hopes and dreams. Perhaps it’s due to its autobiographical nature (with three of the male leads playing various versions of himself), but Lucas managed to make his characters human this rare time.
He actually made his words flesh (something we all know he’s had a difficult time with since!).
Unfortunately, the picture stumbles towards the end. Lucas struggled with the structure of the film, which was originally intended to follow each of the four leads separately in the same sequence from start to finish. But as the picture grew in length, he had to reconsider his vision and then cut the film to serve the story over his initial blueprint.
This meant a film with no traditional third act, that culminated with a drag race between John and the mysterious Bob. But it ends in haste, abruptly, with Steve suddenly staying behind and Curt finally leaving. Whereas the rest of the picture takes its sweet time setting the stage and getting into its characters’ heads, it suddenly skips some beats.
There’s also the unfortunate choice of closing the film with text updates of Steve, Curt, Terry and John’s futures, omitting Laurie, Debbie and Carol completely. One could argue that the boys were always the picture’s main focus, but, given how much screentime the girls get, its unusual to ignore them. Lucas was rightly criticized for this.
Still, these are mere bump in the road, and ‘American Graffiti’ continues to hold up anyway. It’s a dramedy that captures very well the uncertainty and aspirations of teenagers at that juncture in their lives, between childhood and adulthood, when the world is full of possibilities. Even if one hasn’t known small town USA in 1962, it still resonates deeply.
‘American Graffiti’ is not just a sketch in time, it’s a timeless classic.
Date of viewing: November 2, 2016