Ed. note: Next week marks the anniversary of the US release of American Graffiti, which first hit screens the summer of 1973. Our UK contributor Matt Clough believes that after 38 years, the movie hasn’t received enough credit. Here’s his take.
American Graffiti is an almost unique achievement in cinema, a film that perfectly encapsulates the time period it depicts. Films classified as period pieces tend to conjure up images of Edwardian manor houses and hyperbolic frocks, but there’s no better example of the category than George Lucas’s ode to smalltown life in early 60s America.
Taking place in Lucas’s hometown of Modesto, California, American Graffiti is the story of four high-school friends, all at a crucial point in their lives. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are both due to leave for college the next morning. Curt is fearful and unsure whether to go, whilst Steve is fixated on leaving, despite his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams). Terry (Charles Martin Smith) is entrusted with Steve’s beloved car for the night, and uses his newly acquired “super-fine machine” to pick up Debbie (Candy Clark). John (Paul Le Mat) is a drag racer who is inadvertently lumbered with looking after Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) for the night, before squaring off in a race with Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).
Although set in 1962, American Graffiti is actually more reminiscent of the 1950s. Sixties America is likely to bring to mind the civil rights movement, Vietnam and the hippies, whilst the 50s are more closely associated with what’s detailed in Lucas’s film: hot rods, early rock-n-roll, and neon-drenched main streets.
Among the film’s stars is, of course, a then-unknown Harrison Ford. Legend has it that the only reason Ford was considered for the role was because of the carpentry work he was doing for Lucas at the time; his performance led to him getting a large part in Lucas’s next project, some film called Star Wars. (Ford would also appear briefly in the 1974 classic, The Conversation, directed by Lucas’s mentor, Francis Coppola.)
Whilst it’s very easy to look back at our past, be it culturally or individually, with a large degree of nostalgia that emphasizes the positives and eschews the negatives, there is an almost undeniable truth to Lucas’s creed that American Graffiti was about a simpler, more innocent time for Americans. The movie alludes to the two key events that would follow almost immediately after the film’s events and change America forever: President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and the Vietnam War.
The main ambition of Richard Dreyfuss’s Curt is to shake Kennedy’s hand, a dream not only indicative of a youth culture less ostensibly driven by lust for money and power, but also reflective of the way the assassination was both unimaginable and heartbreaking for the American people. The film’s epilogue details how Terry (Charles Martin Smith) was listed as missing in action in Vietnam. Terry is shown to be the most childish of the four main characters, and it seems unthinkable that the character could be fighting the Viet Cong just a couple of years later.
There’s no denying it was a very different time. The fact that one character refers to another’s love of The Beach Boys as being ‘grungy’ says a lot.
The performances are strong and the cinematography is evocative, but American Graffiti’s indisputable standout feature is its soundtrack. Given that Graffiti was made at a time when it was uncommon to use contemporary music in a film soundtrack, as opposed to a classical score (United Artists gave up on Lucas and the film in early production due to his use of songs). The music fills the movie and always accompanies the action perfectly.
Even Martin Scorsese, a master at setting film to music, has never, in my opinion, bettered Lucas here. Budget constraints forced Lucas to essentially halve his 80-song playlist, and cut some of the more well-known artists such as Elvis Presley, but that only serves to authenticate the whole experience. In between songs, famous DJ “Wolfman” Jack provides small vignettes that tie the songs together, meaning there’s rarely a point in the film without the faux radio broadcast in the background. One caller to the show (taken from an actual call to the Wolfman’s station) sums up just how critical music was to the period and the film. When the Wolfman asks him what he has for entertainment, the caller replies “all we got is you.”
Although held in extremely high regard by critics and fans, American Graffiti is nowhere near as well known as it deserves to be. Today, it has been eclipsed in the public memory by similar films about different eras, such as Dazed and Confused and The Breakfast Club. Lucas is, of course, almost always associated with Star Wars, and the film’s three biggest names (Howard, Dreyfuss and Ford) are all better known for different work. Graffiti is a bona \fide classic, and must be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in Americana (even if it’s only because you enjoyed the Jack Rabbit Slims’ part of Pulp Fiction).
P.S: I have, so far, not seen the 1979 sequel, the imaginatively titled More American Graffiti, largely due to Ron Howard’s moustache.
Love American Graffiti? Then check out My Dinner With Milner’s Graffiti-only blog.