In 1962, a group of teenagers spends the last night of their summer vacation “cruising” the streets of their small town in Modesto, California. The youngsters, most of them on the verge of adulthood, ponder their future during one long and eventful night.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Where were you in ’62?” — movie tagline
E.L. Doctorow meets John Hughes. George Lucas’s piece of Americana has lost its edge, but it’s still an immensely entertaining movie. Lucas based the film on his experiences as a teenager in Modesto, California. Most of the events in the movie happened, and the characters were inspired by real people. Writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck shaped Lucas’s experiences into a workable screenplay.
After the commercial failure of Lucas’s dystopian drama THX 1138, the filmmaker was eager to prove that he could make a mainstream film. Universal agreed to finance American Graffiti on one condition: Lucas had to make the film on a tight budget. The restrictions placed on the production were a blessing in disguise — the unassuming quality of American Graffiti is part of its enduring charm.
The film is an eye-opener for moviegoers familiar only with Lucas’s big budget sci-fi extravaganzas. Who would have thought? Before he got too preoccupied with gimmicks and gadgets, Lucas was an imaginative young filmmaker. Not only does Lucas demonstrate here that he knows a thing or two about camera placement, narrative structure, and pacing, but he also knows good acting when he sees it — Lucas gets wonderful performances out of what was a cast of mostly unknown actors.
Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl) is a teen obsessed with a bombshell in a T-Bird, played by Suzanne Somers (TV’s Three’s Company). High school sweethearts, played by Ron Howard (The Music Man) and Cindy Williams (TV’s Laverne & Shirley), discuss ending their relationship. A nerd (Charles Martin Smith, Never Cry Wolf) hooks up with a quirky blonde (Candy Clark, The Man Who Fell to Earth).
There is also a funny subplot about a popular drag racer (Paul Le Mat, Melvin and Howard) who can’t get rid of an annoying twelve-year-old girl (Mackenzie Phillips, TV’s One Day at a Time). They are all terrific, but Clark stands out — she received a well-deserved Oscar-nomination. Also, with Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lots Ark), Bo Hopkins (Midnight Express), Kathleen Quinlan (Twilight Zone: The Movie), Kay Lenz (White Line Fever) and legendary disc jockey “Wolfman” Jack as himself.
Editors Verna Fields (The Sugarland Express and Jaws) and Marcia Lucas (Star Wars) are the unsung heroes here. They had the difficult task of giving shape and meaning to endless hours of footage. And one can’t underestimate Walter Murch’s help in creating the film’s fantastic soundtrack, a great collection of memorable tunes. Beautifully photographed by Jan D’Alquen and Ron Eveslage.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
American Graffiti made a fortune (George Lucas used the money to help finance Star Wars), received endless accolades, and launched the careers of many people. The movie also inspired a slew of copycats, a sequel, and the popular ’70s TV show Happy Days. Pretty good for a movie about a group of aimless teens. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather). Highly recommended! Color, 113 minutes, Rated PG.
Followed by More American Graffiti (1979)