In 1962, a group of teenagers spent a summer night “cruisin” the streets of their small Californian town. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) is obsessed with a bombshell in a T-Bird (Suzanne Somers, TV’s Three’s Company). High School sweethearts Steve (Ron Howard, TV’s Happy Days) and Debbie (Candy Clark, The Man Who Fell to Earth) discuss ending their relationship. Nerdy Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith, Starman) hooks up with a quirky blonde (Cindy Williams, TV’s Laverne & Shirley). Drag-racer John (Paul Le Mat, Melvin and Howard) can’t get rid of an annoying twelve-year-old girl (Mackenzie Phillips, TV’s One Day at a Time). All these characters interact during one long night.
Reaction & Thoughts:
E.L. Doctorow meets John Hughes. George Lucas’s piece of American nostalgia 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 actually happened, and the characters were inspired by real people (“Toad” is supposed to be a young Lucas). 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 simple, unassuming quality of American Graffiti is part of its enduring charm.
Before he got too preoccupied with gimmicks and gadgets, Lucas was an imaginative young filmmaker. Not only does Lucas demonstrate that he knows a thing or two about camera placement, narrative structure, and pacing, but he also gets wonderful performances out of what was a cast of mostly unknown actors. They are all terrific, but Clark stands out — she received a well-deserved Oscar-nomination.
Editors Verna Fields (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.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
American Graffiti made a fortune and launched the careers of many people. It also inspired a slew of copycats, a sequel, and the TV show Happy Days. Pretty good for a movie about a group of aimless teens. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola. With Harrison Ford, Bo Hopkins, Kathleen Quinlan, Kay Lenz, and Wolfman Jack as himself. Color, 112 minutes, Rated PG.
Followed by More American Graffiti (1979)