Thursday, August 23, 2012

Movie – American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti is probably the first “nostalgia” movie ever made about the early rock and roll era.  Even though it is set in 1962, it is really an ode to the 1950s when teens spent their evenings riding up and down the strip in their cars, listening to rock and roll on the radio.  Originally the studio didn’t even want to release the film, sitting on it for six months and requiring director George Lucas to cut some scenes, but when they finally did it became very popular.  It also received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.  (After Lucas became big from Star Wars, American Graffiti was re-released in Lucas’ original version.) 

Even though they are not directly connected, the TV show Happy Days appeared the next year and capitalized in a big way on 1970s nostalgia for the 1950s.  Since then there have been any number of movies and TV shows that have looked back two decades in order to entertain adults with memories of when they were teens (i.e. Hairspray – 80s to 60s, Dazed and Confused – 90s to 70s, That 70s Show – 90s to 70s, Rock of Ages – 00s to 80s, etc.)

American Graffiti has early appearances from a number of people – Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, Paul Le Mat, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Kathleen Quinlan, Kay Lenz, Joe Spano, and Suzanne Somers.  It was also the first success director George Lucas had at the box office – four years before he did Star Wars.

The movie takes place in a single evening and night in the life of a dozen or so teens.  It’s towards the end of summer and some of them are going to be going their separate ways.  They decide to get together and spend the evening having fun, but they soon split up and head off for their own adventures.  They run into other teens, get involved with them, and sometimes cross back in and out of other storylines as the evening progresses.  All the while the air is filled with dozens of class rock songs from the 1950s, and they are being played by Wolfman Jack – the legendary early rock and roll DJ.

The main storylines involve:

1.  Steve (Howard) and Laurie (Williams) as boyfriend and girlfriend.  He’s heading off to college, but she’s got one more year in high school.  He suggests they see other people, she reacts badly, they makeup, split up, and basically have all the teenage drama and angst you would expect from the situation.
2.  Curt (Dreyfuss) becomes obsessed with a blonde he sees briefly in a car (Somers) and spends the evening trying to find her.  He also gets taken along with the local gang for some hijinks. 
3.  Terry (Smith) is given the keys to Steve’s car to use while Steve is at college.  Terry is a “nerd” who rides a scooter so he revels in driving around in this car attracting girls.  One (Clark) gets in his car and he spends the evening trying to get into her pants.  This includes trying to get some liquor for the two of them.
4.  John (Le Mat) gets stuck with the too young Carol (Phillips) in his car and can’t get rid of her because she won’t tell him where she lives.  In the meantime, he keeps hearing that another guy in a hot car (Ford) is looking for him to race him.

At different points in the film many of the people end up at a local dance, at a burger joint, at a canal, and cruising on the main strip in the town.  Some of them question their future plans and one or two even decide to take different directions.

The end of the film provides a “what happened” text summary for the four main male characters.  Reportedly the writers had summaries for the female characters, too, but Lucas didn’t want to include them because he felt the movie was running too long.  Anyway, these summaries play into the 1979 sequel More American Graffiti.  While it’s not good enough to recommend, you may want to watch it to catch up with some of these characters.  Without spoiling which one, you do find out that one of the summaries at the end of American Graffiti was misleading.

Unless you think “classic rock” is the Spice Girls (like the teen girl in American Reunion did) then you may want to see this film just for the soundtrack.  It has over forty different songs in it.  You may also want to see it for all the early appearances by people who went on to other things.  Finally, you may want to watch it just to see George Lucas do something other than science fiction.  If any of these things sound interesting, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I have this one in my collection, although it's been years since I've watched it. Might be a good time to check it out again, since I'm feeling Star Wars fatigue.

  2. I like this one more than you do. The soundtrack elevates it. For me, though, the text that pops up at the end telling us what happens to our four young guys kills a lot of the mood of the film.

    1. I agree the soundtrack is great. Yeah, the ending summaries including some not so great futures for some of them does throw some cold water on things. As it turns out, one of them is not so sad after all, based on what is shown in More American Graffiti.

  3. I'm not a huge fan of this one. It's a bit too nostalgically plotless for an era I never knew. I appreciate it, but I would never choose to watch it on my own. I've seen it twice; that's more than enough for me.

    1. I believe I've seen it twice, too. Once long ago on broadcast TV, and once some time in the 90s.

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