American Graffiti is George Lucas’ masterpiece of teenage nostalgia. Set in 1962, it’s a funny and thoughtful character piece that chronicles a single night in the lives of a group of California teenagers on the cusp of beginning their adult lives. American Graffiti has been reissued in 4K Ultra HD for the first time, commemorating its 50th anniversary. The film is certainly deserving of such an upgrade, but individual viewer reaction to the new edition will depend largely on one’s tolerance for digital noise reduction. A 50-year-old film (one that was designed to look 10 years older, even at the time of release) probably shouldn’t look this grain-free. The eradication of the film grain has left American Graffiti looking a bit artificial.
But the movie remains as entertaining and heartfelt as ever. It’s a story comprised of moments rather than a traditional plot. A group of friends spends a final summer night cruising their Modesto main drag. The ensemble cast boasts a wide array of remarkably nuanced performances. Richard Dreyfuss and Cindy Williams deliver the most deeply felt work. Dreyfuss plays Curt Henderson, a young man set to leave for college the next day. His plans are nearly derailed when a mysterious woman (Suzanne Somers) in a Thunderbird catches his attention early in the evening. His night-long pursuit of her nearly drives him to abandon plans to catch his plane out of town the next morning.
Williams plays Laurie, girlfriend of Steve (Ron Howard). She’s put off by Steve’s suggestion that they see other people while he’s away at college. Throughout the night, as she tries to not let her anger and hurt feelings show, she becomes increasingly unpredictable until she takes up with Bob (Harrison Ford), a drag racer who’s been searching for John (Paul Le Mat) to race. Again, not a lot of plotting per se, but a ton of poignant moments. Speaking of John, he gets stuck with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a middle-schooler who hops into his car. Known as the fastest drag racer in the valley, John essentially babysits Carol for the night. Dorky Terry (Charles Martin Smith) manages to pick up Debbie (Candy Clark, Oscar-nominated for her work her, one of five nominations Graffiti received) and spends the night getting in over his head in a variety of potentially dangerous situations.
Even the film’s nominal climax (involving John and Bob’s inevitably automotive confrontation), which could’ve been melodramatically over the top, is played in such matter-of-fact terms that it avoids being maudlin. Probably everything that could be said in favor of American Graffiti over the past 50 years already has. There are a few detours that don’t work well (particularly Terry and Debbie’s trip to a cemetery), but all-in-all if you haven’t seen this timeless classic you’re missing out and the new addition provides the perfect reason to dive in. And if you love the pop music of the era, the soundtrack is a treat—wall-to-wall rock and roll tunes, punctuated by the commentary of the ever-present deejay (Wolfman Jack—his in-person appearance provides another highlight).
Note that the included Blu-ray is the original release from many years ago. The special features, found on both the 4K and standard BD discs, are all ported over from the previous release. The main attraction is a 78-minute documentary, presented in several parts. Over 20 minutes of screentests allow for a glimpse into the casting process (interesting to contrast Paul Le Mat’s early-‘70s look with his early-‘60s makeover as seen in the finished film). There’s also a George Lucas commentary track for anyone seeking further insights into his creative process. Suffice it to say, anyone familiar with Lucas exclusively for his Star Wars films may be shocked (in a good way, hopefully) to see such a different side to his artistry.