Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith and Paul Le Mat return in this laugh-filled follow-up look into the lives of the gang from George Lucas’ original coming-of-age classic, American Graffiti.
Set a few years later, the film traces the continuing hopes, dreams and romances of these high school friends. Gone are the sock hops, cruise nights and make-out spots. Now it’s all about campus parties, love-ins and peace rallies-as these friends find themselves in the midst of the amazing era that was the mid-60’s.
Featuring a timeless soundtrack loaded with the period’s greatest hits by Bob Dylan, Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Doors and more, it’s a story to evoke memories of a time when becoming an adult meant laughing, crying and savoring old friendships.
eyelights: its ambition. its style. its structure.
eyesores: its less personal touch. Ron Howard’s performance. its structure.
“Don’t do that man, just come back alive.”
In this day and age, a hit film almost always guarantees a sequel. The whole cast dies at the end? Well, let’s find a way to bring them to life, then! Or let’s do a prequel! Movies have become so commercialized that they’re merely product designed to rake in the dough. Even the most laudable art film will be corrupted if it makes too much money.
But this was a largely foreign concept in the ’70s. Nobody did a sequel to ‘The Graduate’ or ‘Love Story’. And where’s my prequel to ‘One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest’ or ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘? Unlike today, nobody even considered it; studios merely tried to emulate the formula, hoping, praying for lightning to strike twice.
In 1979, inspired by one of the rare successful sequels of the time, ‘The Godfather: Part II’, George Lucas produced a follow-up to his massive hit ‘American Graffiti‘. Universal Pictures were more than eager: the original had made serious bank and nearly doubled that when it was re-released in 1978. Everybody wanted another taste of that action.
‘More American Graffiti’ was a product of that ambition.
It was also a massive failure: though the picture at least made its money back, its box office numbers were a mere fraction of its predecessor’s. I’ve read some online comments where people like to claim that this is possibly the worst sequel ever (trust me, there’s worse). But even George Lucas appears to have conceded that it was a mistake.
Personally, I think that ‘More American Graffiti’ is a pretty good concept film: set on New Year’s Eve, it follows the gang from the previous film (all the main cast but Richard Dreyfus returned for this) over four separate storylines that are set in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967. Being a period of momentous change, each segment is distinct.
In fact, the picture was shot and edited in completely different styles for each story: 1964 was shot in widescreen, 1965 was shot on 16mm (to emulate the grainy, muddy television news footage of the time), 1966 is constructed from multiple split screens (just like some films of the era), and 1967 is shot in a more standard 1.85:1 ratio.
Personally, I think that it works very well because the look of each immediately evokes its setting, like a shorthand. Plus it looks cool. And the fact that they follow one another sequentially makes it work – it’s not jarring. Widescreen easily goes to 4:3 which transitions to experimental editing to conventional framing and back.
Because, yes, the picture follows each segment consecutively, in an A-B-C-D form, and takes us back to the start again in a continuous loop throughout the film. Though this is very different from ‘American Graffiti’, this was actually Lucas’ original intention with the first film – he just didn’t succeed in editing it that way. So it makes sense.
But you have to be aware of George Lucas’ intentions to appreciate it; most fans of the first picture would likely have seen this and found it too different, too jarring, stylistically. And yet it’s a perfectly-calculated and executed motion picture – if anything, it’s an exercise in form, and it’s one that works from every conceivable technical perspective.
It just doesn’t have any heart.
Whereas its predecessor was a love letter to a time and place that was dear to Lucas (he even inserted a few doppelgängers of himself in it), ‘More American Graffiti’ is merely a natural extension of what happens to Steve, Laurie, Terry, Debbie, John and Carol in the years after graduating from high school. It’s not nearly as personal.
That causes us to watch the events unfold with a sense of remove, whereas the original involved us emotionally by connecting us to its characters, time and place. And it’s not that the individual stories are less compelling, as both films are comprised of episodic, slice-of-life type fodder – the kind of stuff that matters when you’re involved.
…but that’s all equally trivial from an outsider’s perspective.
- 1964 revolves around John’s attempts to win a racing championship.
- 1965 shows us Terry’s trials and tribulations as he tries to get wounded enough to be sent home.
- 1966 follows Debbie as she moves to the big city and tries to support her musician boyfriend.
- 1967 finds Steve and Laurie’s relationship strained as she longs for a career.
The picture tries too hard to be fun. Whereas some of the original’s greatest moments came at the hands of bloopers that Lucas incorporated in his final cut, ‘More American Graffiti’ lays thick the gags to try to win its audiences’ approval. And while some of it works, it gives the picture an artificiality that doesn’t facilitate warmth.
Adding to this artificiality is a deplorable performance courtesy of Ron Howard, who eschewed all the subtlety he demonstrated in his first outing. Given the amount of experience he’d garnered in the intervening years with ‘Happy Days’ (which was influenced by ‘American Graffiti’), you’d expect better than melodramatic flub.
The rest of the cast does the material justice, though, including Paul Le Mat, who had a tendency to wince, and Candy Clark, who was far too cartoon-like, in the original. And it’s a gas to see Harrison Ford do a nod at the audience behind Officer Bob Falfa’s police sunglasses and helmet – instead of making a grander entrance like some would.
Frankly, I must admit that the first time I saw ‘More American Graffiti’, I was incredibly disappointed – especially after having just watched the original. It had none of its magic and felt like a completely different beast. Now, however, I’m rather impressed at the proficiency with which Lucas brought his unique concept to the screen.
Granted, if one compares it to its predecessor, ‘More American Graffiti’ doesn’t hold a candle. But, seen on its own terms, it’s a decent enough movie – though to me it earns extra points strictly for its technical achievement. Anyone not swayed by the gimmicky aspect of the picture would likely find it less compelling and should probably skip it.
Sometimes less is more.
Date of viewing: November 3, 2016