Movies We Like
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.
The whole film plays out to dozens of period tunes and the voice of real life radio DJ Wolfman Jack (who Curt eventually meets up with in a great scene of cherished encouragement). Of course the DJ serving as the narrator is a device that would be used again and again in the future in films ranging from The Warriors to Reservoir Dogs. And, in fact, that sound design is one of the real stars of the film. The same year Martin Scorsese also employed an inventive use of pop music in his first seminal film, Mean Streets. But Lucas, with this, his earlier flick THX 1138 and of course later Star Wars, proves that one of his real genius qualities is what he does with sound. Like Robert Altman’s MASH the levels carefully go in and out. Altman did it with dialogue but Lucas does it with music. Sometimes the music plays over car radios, as the characters hear it and other times it seems to be for the audience, maybe not heard by the characters. Most beautifully, as Steve and Laurie hit a sock-hop, a band plays what are obviously live songs that echo throughout the school, at different levels in approximation to the stage.
Apparently the studios didn’t believe in the commercial potential of American Graffiti and it languished in development and between studios for some time. It wasn’t until Lucas’s good bud Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off the success of The Godfather, came on as a producer that Universal Pictures agreed to finance it and of course this modestly budgeted film was a huge worldwide hit. Its influence was massive. The '50s/early '60s nostalgia was huge in the '70s from Sha Na Na to The Wanderers, from The Lords of Flatbush to Grease, from The Buddy Holly Story and most definitely to television’s Happy Days which had a number of obvious cross-overs with American Graffiti. Though the sitcom starred Ron Howard playing a similar character to American Graffiti’s Steve, Happy Days actually sprang from an episode of Love, American Style (an anthology show) that featured Howard and other Happy Days cast members. Actually the biggest theft that Happy Days took from American Graffiti, besides Howard, was the opening theme song and credits featuring Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock,” though after a few seasons when Happy Days gave up on being authentic to the period, they went with an original theme song called “Happy Days.”
If you looked back at ten years ago from today, would the world look that different? There might be different leaders and some celebrities may be at different levels in their fame, but the cultural zeitgeist would not feel that different. But that jump in cultural evolution from 1962, when American Graffiti takes place, and 1972, when it was made, is giant. The world changed so much that ten years earlier looked like a whole different planet and American Graffiti’s obvious affection for the time is deeply felt. Lucas and company aren’t making fun of that earlier innocence; on the contrary, they seem to miss it and admire it. And now 40-50 years later, both periods seem simply magical.