One of the greatest things about films is how they can take you back to another place and time. I’m not talking about where and when the films themselves are set, but where you were in your life when you first saw the movie. For me American Graffiti came into my life during my freshmen year of high school. I was in a Film 101 class with a very hard, but in the end awesome teacher. I remember sitting in those uncomfortable plastic chairs tapping my foot to the music and being enthralled by various intertwining stories. While I did enjoy the movie then, re-watching it now has allowed me to find a deeper connection to the characters and their journeys. Easily my favorite George Lucas film, American Graffiti is both a love letter to the past and a reflection of the choices we all make before ‘growing-up’.
Taking place from dusk til’ dawn on a later summer night in 1962, the film follows four different young men as they all face the realities of their futures. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is set to leave the next morning for college with his friend Steve Bolander (Ronny Howard). Despite a bright future, Curt is unsure as to wither he is going to actually leave in the morning. Steve, on the other hand, can’t talk about anything but how ready he is to leave in the morning. He even talks with his ‘steady girlfriend’ Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) about having an open relationship while he’s gone. As he starts to tie up loose ends, Steve loans his car to Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith), who takes this opportunity to cruise for girls. Also cruising the strip is John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the local gear head who is known for having an unbeatable car. As the night continues, each of them encounter different experiences that begin to shape what they are going to eventually become. It all ends with a climatic car race that pushes each character to make final decisions on what they are going to do when the new day dawns.
American Graffiti was George Lucas’ second film to be produced and released. Still hurt from the failure of THX-1138, Lucas was very picky about how much control the studio would have over the film. Despite a variety of people who had their own input on how the script should be, Lucas stayed true to what he wanted to portray. He had grown up in the very scene that is shown in the film. He drew on experience to fill the film with authentic moments of a time that many people his age had also experienced. It is his genuine affection for that moment in time that gives the film heart. It feels like a love letter to his youth that includes both the good and bad. It is also interesting how Lucas took different parts of his life and personality and put them into different characters.
Filming took 29 days and wasn’t a smooth process. There was an ‘independent film’ feeling on the set that allowed for the younger cast to be more outlandish. There was drinking, trashed hotel rooms, and even some close calls during filming. Two camera men were almost seriously harmed while filming the climatic race scene near the end of the movie. While not always ideal, the more relaxed attitude on the set allowed for some of the actors to be a little more open with improvising. In addition to some of the improvised moments making it into the film, some of the mistakes the actors made are still in the film. When Charles Martin Smith (Terry “The Toad”) rides his Vespa to Mel’s Drive-In, he actually revved it and caused him to crash into the building. Lucas loved this and kept it in the film.
One of the most well remembered things about the film is it’s soundtrack. The rights to the songs reportedly costed around $90,000.00. When you discuss the movie with people, often times they bring up the soundtrack as their favorite thing about the film. It is nearly impossible to not smile while listening to the classic bebop and rock & roll. It really helps to define the time in which the film is set. The music, also itself starting to change, drives home the point to the viewer that the characters are themselves changing, wither they like it or not.
Of all the characters, Curt is hands down my favorite character of the movie. He is the one who keeps jumping around from story to story, chasing the mythical ‘goddess’ in the white T-Bird. He starts the movie out pretty certain he wasn’t going to go to college in the morning. As the night goes on and he meets new people, including the infamous Wolfman Jack, he begins to change his mind and see that if he doesn’t go off to college (or at least try) he will regret it. Often through the film he is thrown into situations and forced to deal with them. I think that’s an experience we can all identify with. At some point you have to give up being reactive and become proactive, even if that can mean you might fail.
The film enjoyed moderate success and critical acclaim. One of the things the movie accomplished was bringing a sense of nostalgia to a generation of 30somethings. A renewed interest in the late 50s/early 60s came about. Mel’s Drive In, one of the iconic locations in the film, was actually closed prior to filming and demolished after it was over. Thanks to the film, a few years later they reopened Mel’s Drive In’s around California. 50s nostalgia has continued to be around and this movie helped to start it. I usually hate the phrase “coming of age” when it comes to film, but to me it is the best way to describe this movie. The characters all grow up in some way by the end of the movie, but the epilogue makes it bittersweet in many ways. One of my favorites on the list, American Graffiti will always remind me of being a freshman in high school and remind me that some things are worth take a risk for.