Universal // 1973 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // May 19th, 2011
Where were you in '62?
By 1972, the dismal failure of THX 1138, filmmaker George Lucas' first feature, had nearly bankrupted American Zoetrope, the movie production company Lucas had founded with Francis Ford Coppola in 1969. As it turns out, the flop wasn't all bad. To keep the company solvent, Coppola took on a director-for-hire gig on a little movie called The Godfather. And Lucas, in response to Coppola's pleas, turned his sights to making something more appealing to mainstream audiences than dystopian speculative science fiction: a coming-of-age story based on his experiences as a teenage gearhead growing up in Modesto in the early '60s. Lucas assembled a mostly unknown cast (including a carpenter named Harrison Ford who'd given up on acting) and made American Graffiti on a tight and exhausting schedule of nighttime shooting.
Made on a shoestring budget in cinéma vérité style, American Graffiti inspired little confidence in the suits at Universal. They trimmed four minutes from Lucas' final cut (just because), and considered either pretending the flick didn't exist or releasing it as a TV movie. Meanwhile, test audiences loved it -- so much so, that Universal finally relented and agreed to give the movie a proper theatrical release. When American Graffiti hit movie houses in 1973, its mix of comedy, drama, compelling characters, unorthodox (at the time) narrative structure, and throwback music kicked off a wave of nostalgia for a bygone (pre-Vietnam) era, resulting in massive box office bank for the little film. In the eyes of the Hollywood establishment, Lucas was now a wunderkind, the sort of creative force who could ask for and receive funding for almost any project -- even an outlandish Flash Gordon-style space opera that was sure to bomb at the box office.
Set on the last day of summer in 1962, American Graffiti captures a single night in the life of four high school friends. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard, Happy Days) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws) graduated at the end of the fall semester and are set to fly out east for college the following morning. Steve goes to a sock hop and breaks it to his girlfriend, Curt's younger sister Laurie (Cindy Williams, Laverne and Shirley), that he thinks they should see other people while he's away. The former class president soon learns that Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Regular guy Curt is plagued with doubts about leaving home. While out cruising, Curt catches a glimpse of a beautiful blonde (Suzanne Somers, Three's Company) in a '56 Thunderbird and becomes obsessed with finding her so he can express his true feelings. His quest leads him through an initiation ritual with members of the greaser car club The Pharaohs, and to the broadcasting outpost of legendary local disk jockey Wolfman Jack to dedicate a song to the blonde.
Steve entrusts his prized '58 Impala to nerdy upcoming high school senior Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith, Never Cry Wolf). Toad uses his new wheels to pick up "bitchin' babe" Debbie (Candy Clark, The Man Who Fell to Earth). Awkward romance, comic attempts to procure alcohol, goat-sucker chills, and a sound thumping by car thieves follows.
Disappointed that his friends are spending their last night in town at a lame sock hop, gearhead John Milner (Paul Le Mat, Melvin and Howard) gets stuck cruising town in his '32 Ford Coupe street rod with clingy teenybopper Carol (Mackenzie Phillips, One Day at a Time). The local drag racing champion, Milner is pursued throughout the night by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark), a newbie in town who drives a wicked '55 Chevy. Eventually, the two meet for a showdown at Paradise Road.
Is cruising dead, killed at last by Facebook, Twitter, and texting? It's a shame if it is, though I find it difficult to believe that even technology can thoroughly mute kids' love of cars. George Lucas claims he was inspired to make American Graffiti because by the early '70s cruising was a thing of the past. I have trouble buying that. It may have changed a bit since Lucas was a teen in the early '60s, but surely American teenagers a decade later still spent their nights tooling around aimlessly in automobiles. Cruising was alive and well when I was a teen in the '80s. We didn't drag race, and neon-lighted diners had been replaced by video arcades and the local drive-in theater, but our weekend nights were still mostly spent driving around while bullshitting and looking for girls. Driving has practically been an American adolescent rite of passage since Henry Ford (or maybe Ransom E. Olds) invented the assembly line, which is why American Graffiti is a timeless period piece. I didn't come of age in the early '60s, but the movie's scenes of kids making plans, flirting, and trading good-natured insults across open car windows feel keenly observed, true, and deeply nostalgic because I lived out similar scenes during my own adolescence.
Co-written by Lucas and screenwriting team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who also collaborated on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), American Graffiti is easily the tightest and most elegantly written of Lucas' movies. The four principles are teenage archetypes -- the popular guy, the smart guy, the rebel, and the nerd -- whose adventures lead to predictable epiphanies, but the characters, dialogue, and events are so fleshed out with fine details from the writers' own adolescent experiences that the structural framework of the story is almost invisible. American Graffiti looks and feels almost as organic as a documentary. At the time of its making, the idea of a mainstream Hollywood movie that juggled four thematically connected but otherwise distinct (for the most part) storylines was unheard of. American Graffiti has been copied so often over the decades since its release (teen movies from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Dazed and Confused adhere closely to its formula) that it doesn't seem at all unconventional today. But its approach was weird enough in the early '70s to give studio executives ulcers.
In addition to its unique narrative structure, American Graffiti was groundbreaking in its use of an almost constant pop music soundtrack in lieu of a score (Martin Scorsese used the same technique in Mean Streets, released the same year). Lucas selected the music first, and then wrote the screenplay while listening to the songs so that the mood of each scene was tightly woven into the mood of its music. He rarely allowed the lyrics of a song to comment on a scene, drawing emotional power instead from the music itself. The soundtrack is a cornucopia of pre-Beatles American rock 'n' roll, including hits by Bill Haley & the Comets, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Chuck Berry, the Platters, Fats Domino, and Booker T. & the M.G.'s. The songs add immeasurable energy and joy to the proceedings, not to mention a heap of realism (because, let's face it, teenage life of any era is always accompanied by a soundtrack). The music of American Graffiti is so boss, in fact, that its soundtrack album has been certified triple platinum. If the tunes in this flick don't instantly make you happy, then you're most likely an abomination with no soul and a black aura that kills puppies and kittens on contact. The tunes are made even richer and more powerful by Wolfman Jack, whose persona looms over the proceedings and whose scratchy voice creates subtle connections between the movie's four stories -- the kids may be caught up in their own adventures, but each is plugged into the Wolfman's AM radio fantasia. It's an incredibly effective contrivance that receives full payoff with Curt's close encounter with the mysterious DJ near the end of the picture.
Since American Graffiti traces four mostly disconnected stories in parallel, it would collapse under its own weight if even one of the stories was weak. Each is absolutely compelling. Toad's awkward courting of Debbie is funny and charming. Milner's extended cruise with 12-year-old Carol is full of energy and realistically witty repartee. The fragile evolution of Steve and Laurie's relationship is genuinely dramatic while maintaining enough humor so that it feels of a piece with the rest of the movie. If one of the storylines is stronger than the others, it is Curt's Hamlet-like indecision about leaving for college the following morning. As he bounces from pursuit of the blonde in the T-bird, to his initiation in the Pharaohs car club, to his quest to meet Wolfman Jack in a last-ditch effort to make contact with the elusive blonde by way of a song dedication, Curt's adventures are simultaneously realistically random and custom-made to move him toward the realization that he will never be satisfied with the life available to him in his little hometown. Through careful observation and honed dialogue, Lucas, Huyck, and Katz draw a connection between the peculiarities of adolescent longing and life's deepest ongoing yearnings -- and they do so with much humor and youthful energy. When Curt is finally face-to-face with Wolfman Jack, the DJ asks him what he wants. "I'm looking for a girl," Curt says. "Aren't we all?" Wolfman replies with an adult's world-weary humor. Though it's a story about kids, American Graffiti has the sort of depth and heft that appeals to viewers of all ages.
American Graffiti sparkles on Blu-ray. Lucas shot the movie in Techniscope, a non-anamorphic widescreen process that delivers lower resolution because it exposes only about half of the 35mm negative. The high definition presentation doesn't suffer much as a result of his choice. The many nighttime exterior sequences exhibit limited depth of field and a relatively tight structure of film grain. Digital noise reduction is controlled. It may have been used to reduce some of the grain in low-light shots, but brightly lighted scenes such as those inside Mel's Diner are free of digital tomfoolery. The scenes are crisp, colorful, and sport a gorgeous level of detail that blows all previous standard def releases out of the water.
Lucas originally tried to shoot American Graffiti in natural light, but learned the error of his ways when his first batch of dailies were muddy and mostly out of focus. He brought in famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) to fix things. Using key lights in the interior of cars, and overhead lighting carefully placed to mimic street lights, Wexler was able to deliver beautiful imagery while maintaining the sense of naturalism that Lucas was after. The greatest beneficiary of Wexler's work, as well as this high definition transfer, is the endless parade of classic American automobiles on display throughout the picture. The sheen of the cars' paint jobs, accented by the white overhead lighting, is reproduced with such fantastic detail on Blu-ray that the flick is nothing short of classic car porn.
I won't be surprised if critics across the Internet bemoan the fact that the movie has not been treated to a 5.1 surround sound expansion, but their complaints will be dead wrong. Early in his career, Lucas was obsessed with the innovative use of sound in film (THX 1138, American Graffiti, and Star Wars all approached sound design in ways that, at the time, were borderline avant garde). For American Graffiti, he and sound designer Walter Murch added washes of reverb and other effects to the music to place it in ambient spaces in keeping with the visuals onscreen while also reinforcing the emotional content of the scenes. Expanding work that meticulous and detailed into a surround mix just because the technical know-how to do so exists would be a travesty (like, I don't know, making Greedo shoot first in Star Wars). Instead, the disc offers a DTS-HD Master Audio stereo mix. The track is significantly brighter and livelier than the compressed audio on previous home video releases. The Special Edition DVD is occasionally shrill and sometimes a bit muddy; not so the Blu-ray. Dialogue was mostly (if not entirely) recorded live. It's not as punchy and loud as if it had been re-recorded during post-production, but it's always discernible and the naturalism adds a lot of charm. The tunes sound stupendous.
In terms of extras, most of the disc's contents are reheated from the Special Edition DVD but Universal has used their U-Control gimmick to add a couple high-definition exclusives. George Lucas provides a brand spanking new picture-in-picture commentary. The technology is ill-used since there's really no benefit in us watching Lucas watching and commenting on the movie, but the content of his commentary is loaded with interesting observations and anecdotes. Also available via the U-Control menu is The Music of American Graffiti, which delivers pop-up information about each of the songs in the soundtrack as they appear in the movie.
The following supplements are carried over from the Special Edition DVD:
The Making of American Graffiti (78 Minutes)
This seven-part feature-length documentary thoroughly examines the making of the film, from its inspiration in George Lucas' adolescence to its filming, post-production hassles, release, and unexpected success. Lucas, screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, producer Francis Ford Coppola, and members of the cast sit down to talk about the movie. It's a top-notch making-of documentary. The presentation is 480p full frame.
A 22-minute collection of screen tests contains two improvised scenes with Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Le Mat, and a mediocre actor with his face blurred out as Toad; Ron Howard and Cindy Williams running through their argument at the sock hop; Mackenzie Phillips and Paul Le Mat delivering funny banter; and Charles Martin Smith reading the scene in which Toad picks up Debbie.
The disc also contains a theatrical trailer for the picture, presented in window-boxed standard definition. A BD-Live option offers trailers for other Universal releases.
Man, how I love American Graffiti. Considering its tightly written storylines, memorable characters, fine cast, quotable dialogue, beautiful automobiles, and epically awesome music, one wonders how in the world Universal executives in the early '70s couldn't see that they had a major hit on their hands.
Fans of the movie can rest assured that it has received a significant bump in audio/video quality in the move to high definition. The movie's never looked or sounded better. It would have been nice if Universal had ponied up for a few more HD exclusives, but honestly, between Lucas' new video commentary and the painstakingly thorough feature-length making-of documentary, I'm not sure much about the picture was left unsaid.
If you're not a fan of American Graffiti, you deserve a knuckle sandwich, creep.
C'mon, have a Popsicle.
Review content copyright © 2011 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Screen Tests
* My Scenes