American Graffiti (1973)
Release Date: August 11th, 1973 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: George Lucas Actors: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack
t was only director George Lucas’ second film, yet he was already headed for unbelievable cinematic success; his follow-up to this well-received and financially lucrative coming-of-age picture would be “Star Wars.” “American Graffiti” is an authentic and nostalgic slice of youthful, rebellious Americana, poignantly tracing the events of the final night of recently graduated high school kids, who must decide whether or not to depart for college in the morning. A truly prodigious soundtrack enlivens every scene as this diverse assemblage stretches out the last of their comfortably familiar, adolescent lifestyles to the fullest, cruising around town and engaging in all sorts of celebratory mischief.
In 1962, a group of college-bound teens, including best friends Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard), and pals John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry (Charlie Martin Smith), cruise around California (Modesto, specifically) looking for excitement during the last night before Steve, and possibly Curt, leaves to pursue a higher education. A borrowed Impala, relationship woes, a sock hop, a mysterious blonde, and pranks on the cops begin their shenanigans. But more daring street races, run-ins with greasers, vandalizing, and booming rock ‘n’ roll overtake their evening maneuvers as the night wears away and minds become confused about permanently abandoning all the fun.
The story is simple, as are the characters, but it is the huge nostalgia factor and genuine representation of the ‘60s that makes “American Graffiti” so memorable. From the carefree normalcy of gaily navigating the streets looking for girls (and the complications with the opposite sex once they’ve been found), to the attending of school dances, to hanging with gangs, the film smartly captures the seemingly insouciant attitude of typical juveniles who would eventually have to make a decision about entering adulthood – whether it be merely accepting more responsibilities or leaving home entirely. The consolatory town, a Neverland of sorts with its numerous adventures and endless source of immature entertainment, is the ultimate nemesis for Curt and Steve, who must tear themselves away to risk growing up.
Perhaps the most influential aspect is the soundtrack. Daring to narrate the plot with music, Lucas compiles a stunning sampling of tunes from the time and blasts them throughout the entire length of the movie. Radio announcer Wolfman Jack keeps the beats flowing, transitioning from one scene to the next with melodic aplomb, while keeping an optimistic tone that spectacularly enhances the humor of risky antics and stimulating misadventures.
Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard are ideal as the two lead characters, demonstrating through a wild night of mischievousness the youthful objectives of staying cool, defying authority, and impressing the ladies. Ironically, Steve and Curt end up exactly opposite of how their characters start out, trading places from assured to uncertain and vice versa. A huge supporting cast, including Candy Clark, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins, Kathy Quinlan, Suzanne Somers, and Harrison Ford as the cocky Bob Falfa, brings additional legitimacy through credible attitudes, clothing, styling, vehicles, and language.
An unfulfilling epilogue is the only downfall, as it counteracts the lighthearted tone and underlying message of bittersweet maturation. It seems the characters were never meant for great success, imparted as a hasty afterthought, though it’s hardly relevant considering viewers only know the roles for a single day and less than two hours of screentime. In fact, the outcome of Steve’s relationship with his girlfriend, which is the only coda that would have been amusing to know, is curiously absent.
A cleaner, wittier “American Pie” for the ‘70s, “American Graffiti” instantly captured the hearts of audiences and critics, and was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director. A fun-filled cultural snapshot imbued with classic rock and reminiscence, the film has also been honored twice on the American Film Institute’s 100 best movies list and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Though guaranteed to remain an integral part of cinema history, “American Graffiti” will likely always be more appreciated by audiences who experienced firsthand the blither happenings of the pre-Vietnam, pre-counterculture movement of the ‘60s.
– Mike Massie