Classic Movie Review: American Graffiti (1973)


Title: American Graffiti
Release Date: August 11, 1973
Director: George Lucas
Production Company: Lucasfilm | American Zoetrope | The Coppola Company
Summary/Review:

George Lucas’ directorial debut THX 1138 bombed at the box office and he was charged with making a more commercially appealing film for his production company American Zoetrope. (The same fiscal crisis contributed to Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola to agree to direct an adaptation of a sleazy gangster novel). Lucas decided to make a tribute to his youth in Modesto, California where teens cruised the main street in hot cars while listening to rock & roll.

The movie focuses on one night in late summer in 1962 and the exploits of four teenagers:

  • Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) who is due to leave for college the next morning but is uncertain about going. He keeps seeing a mysterious blonde woman in a passing T-Bird (Suzanne Somers) and spends part of the night hanging out with a street gang.
  • Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who is also leaving for college, and is arrogant and obnoxious.  Early on, he tells his long-time steady girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) that he wants to have an open relationship leading to a tense night for the couple.
  • John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the city’s best hot rod drag racer. A car full of girls pranks him by sending over a 12 year old little sister, Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), to ride with him. The initial awkwardness turns into the sweetest part of the movie as John and Carol form a sibling-like relationship.  Much like Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the best scenes in this movie involves John & Carol bonding through vandalism. John also has to face down a challenge from another drag racer, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).
  • Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), a younger teen who inherits Steve’s Chevrolet Impala. He picks up a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) who proves to be an adventurous oddball with kind of a Luna Lovegood quality.

The movie is linked together by Wolfman Jack’s DJ patter over rock and roll hit.  He also appears in a cameo as himself where he gives advice to Curt.  Wolfman Jack was a celebrity DJ in New York when I was a kid.  I never realized that early in his career he broadcast from a high-powered radio station in Mexico and was a mysterious figure to the kids who listened to him at the time.

I ended up liking this movie a lot more than I expected.  But probably the biggest thing about this movie is its legacy. The soundtrack is wall-to-wall hit songs of the early rock & roll era. It’s one of the first movies to be scored entirely with previously-released popular tunes.  These songs are the familiar tunes of the 1950s and early 60s and makes me wonder how much the American Graffiti influenced what songs would be played on Oldies stations forevermore.

The first song heard in the movie is “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & The Comets (which later becomes the opening theme of Happy Days) and one of the last tunes heard in the film is “Goodnight, Well it’s Time to Go” by The Spaniels (which became the farewell song on Sha Na Na).  Which leads to the next legacy, the 50s nostalgia boom of the 1970s. It manifest itself in the tv sitcoms Happy Days (which also starred Ron Howard) and Laverne & Shirley (which also starred Cindy Williams), the comedy variety show Sha Na Na, the Broadway and Hollywood musical Grease, and the revival of musical careers of early rock & roll stars like Chuck Berry and Frankie Valli.

Perhaps the biggest legacy is the career of George Lucas, who went on to make movies that are nothing like American Graffiti.  I never realized that Lucas only directed six films in his entire career (and half of them are the Star Wars prequels!).  I don’t plan to watch THX 1138 anytime soon, but I’m going to assume that American Graffiti is Lucas’ best work of directing actors, as opposed to his true genius at creating story ideas and producing them.

Rating: ***

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