With all of the Star Wars news breaking last week, George Lucas’ name got tossed around quite a bit. Without any sort of creative influence in the oncoming Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Lucas is finally able to experience his brainchild “as a fan.” That has to be quite a feeling for the father of a career-defining franchise.
But it’s easy to forget that a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Lucas first hit it big with something other than Star Wars; the 1973 comedy-drama classic American Graffiti.
Set in 1962 Modesto, California, American Graffiti takes place over one long night – the last one of the summer. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are both set to leave for college on the east coast the next morning, so they head out to the drive-in burger joint for one last hurrah. There, they meeting up with John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry “Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith). This could be the last time they see each other until Christmas.
But there’s still a few loose ends to tie up: Curt remains indecisive about flying out for college, while Steve has to talk with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) about what to do with their relationship. So Steve lends his 1958 Chevy Impala to Toad for the night, giving the more socially-awkward Toad a needed helping of courage.
Riding with Steve and Laurie later, Curt spots a strikingly gorgeous blonde gal who mouths “I love you” before driving off. Curt then splits and seeks out the blonde with all of his vigor, even hanging with a quartet of greasers to do so.
It’s the fleeting, innocuous moments that define American Graffiti: Steve talking to another girl (Jana Bellan) after his breakup; Toad picking up Debbie (Candy Clark), a cute rebel who would be out of his league without that Impala; John inadvertently picking up the young and feisty Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). Even a young Harrison Ford makes an appearance as Bob Falfa, an rough older kid who is never seen not behind the wheel. On the final summer night of their adolescence, they create memories that last forever. Lucas handles these scenes as if he had experienced them verbatim, step-by-step. He most likely did.
Details from the decade serve as set pieces and backdrops for these vignettes, what with old-school cars, slicked-back hair, Tony Curtis hairstyles with drainpipe jeans, roller-skating drive-in waitresses, and the Beach Boys playing on every other radio. Underneath a layer of film grain, American Graffiti is a colorful snapshot of a fondly-remembered era.
Even the dialogue screams the 60s: it’s “backwards day” and not “opposite day.” Back then, the Beach Boys were “boss.” When you’re tired, you “hit the rack.” At times, American Graffiti isn’t so much a movie as it is a window to the past, with John Hughes-style writing in that it so well captures the nuances of the decade.
Yet several vignettes throughout the movie feel weaker compared to the movie’s stronger scenes, which typically appear at the bookends. We sometimes spend more time exploring the world of 1962 than we do exploring the characters themselves, and the writing of some sequences feels underwhelming compared to that of key moments. Some might chalk it up to Lucas not yet finding a groove in screenwriting (and some might argue he never did). At the very least, these scenes remain stable enough to carry us to the rest of the movie, although perhaps not as gratifyingly as they should.
Near the end, all of the kids finish their story lines with the exception of Curt and his quest to track down the blonde. Here is when American Graffiti reaches its apex, with Curt weighing college with a chance at love. We’ve all been at that hot-blooded age where love entices us more than ever, and seeing Curt handle it all is American’s Graffiti’s finest moment.
Bleeding with nostalgia for the 60s, American Graffiti might hold more sentimental value to the baby boomers it portrays than their children and grandchildren. Lucas does not waste a frame of film to tell us this was a great time in American history – indeed it was, and I would have loved to experience it. But resonating across ages is the movie’s coming-of-age tale, set in the last night of their fervent youth. Perhaps it is this universal story that allows American Graffiti to thrive today, even if some moments leave us asking for more.
Written by George Lucas, Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck. Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, and Harrison Ford.