There was a moment in time when George Lucas wasn’t wholly focused on a galaxy far, far away. Produced for a minimal amount of money and with a cast that would become exceptionally well known, American Graffiti is a beautiful look at teens in small town California in the early 1960s.
Rather than telling a solid story, American Graffiti is much more several different intersecting tales about a group of friends. And, if we’re being honest, even the stories told there are of a minimalist nature. Yet, American Graffiti is still a great movie. What makes it so isn’t the fact that a fascinating tale is being woven, but much rather the fact that it provides a glimpse at a moment in America’s history.
The entire thing starts out easily enough as Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) prepare for one last fun night in Modesto, California before heading across the country to go to school. Curt is unsure about heading out while Steve can’t wait to leave. That may, at first blush, appear odd because Steve has a girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams), while Curt has no one, but that’s the way it is.
The film though is really about nostalgia. Made in 1973, the film is nostalgic about a period a decade earlier when teens would still go cruising the strip looking for love. The characters in the movie are all, nearly without exception, nostalgic for their youth which they feel slipping away as this great change approaches (even the ones who aren’t seniors and about to leave town). Even Steve, who purports to have no nostalgia for what has come before in his life wants to go to the high school dance where he just graduated, a sure sign that he does in fact have feeling for the past.
If American Graffiti has one story that is more solid than the others, it is this tale of Steve and his refusal to acknowledge his nostalgia. In fact, it is most likely due to this refusal that Steve’s story is most prominent. While all the characters do grow and change, it is Steve’s coming to recognize just what the town has meant to him with which the film is most concerned.
The stories branch out though from just Steve and Curt. There is also Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith), who hasn’t yet graduated and is just coming into his own in the town now the Curt and Steve are leaving. There is also the tale of John (Paul Le Mat), a somewhat older guy who is the king of the strip and has been the king of drag racing in Modesto for years.
Terry’s night revolves around his getting use of Steve’s car and therefore finally being allowed to go out and look for girls on his own, whereas John is getting tired of what his life has (or hasn’t) brought him. He winds up saddled driving around Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a far too young girl, as he hears tell from everyone he passes of someone new in town gunning for his racing title (Bob Falfa, played by Harrison Ford).
In the end, everyone in the film comes to a realization about who they are and what life should—or shouldn’t—be about for them. A lot of that realization has to do with putting the town and what it has meant to them in perspective (it isn’t until Curt catches a glimpse of what his life could be that he decides to leave).
Backing all of this is an absolutely fantastic soundtrack, filled with classic rock and roll tunes and the voice of Wolfman Jack introducing many of them. There may be nothing quite so iconic in American culture as driving around listening to rock and roll and American Graffiti portrays that beautifully, providing everyone watching with that nostalgic feeling whether they were there or not.
On the technical side of the equation, the first thing that you will notice about American Graffiti is that it sports a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack. This is a stereo mix, not a surround one, which is what the film was produced with originally. It is actually quite a good mix with little to complain about. The music in no way overpowers the dialogue and vice versa. It is also a clean track which is always nice to see (or hear) on older films. The visuals are good, but not great. There is a lot of detail to be seen in close-ups, and some colors and patterns which really pop off the screen well, but there are also some moments when it feels exceptionally dark. This may be a case of intent, but it is distracting at times. As with the audio track, it is a clean print, you will not notice dirt, smudges, or scratches.
The new Blu-ray release has a number of interesting special features, starting with a picture-in-picture commentary by George Lucas. Slightly less good are the numerous screen tests included, but the discussion of how the film came to be, from its inception through its effects after release, is truly excellent and well worth watching. The stars of the film, Lucas, producer Francis Ford Coppola, and a number of other people are all present to talk about the movie and its ramifications and all provide great insights.
American Graffiti is one of those “must watch” movies which virtually everyone will enjoy. From its stellar cast, to its incredible soundtrack, to its brilliant capturing of a bit of American nostalgia, it is a brilliant capturing of a moment in time, even if it is a moment in time looked at with rose-colored glasses. Not all that much may happen in the film, but it is still a great diversion.