American Graffiti is a significant film for quite a few reasons. It was a touchstone of the New Hollywood of the 1970s and represented the last non-Star Wars movie that George Lucas ever directed. It has one of the best collections of pop songs ever put together in the same film. And it’s the very best of the genre that’s come to be known as the “one crazy night” movie. It’s hard to imagine Richard Linklater‘s Dazed and Confused existing without the example of American Graffiti.
But more than anything else, American Graffiti — while set in 1962 — represented the nostalgia for 1950s Americana that would come to dominate popular culture in the later 1970s and into the ’80s, leading into Happy Days (which began the following year with the same leading man), Grease in 1978, and the ’50s diner craze.
The first thing we hear in the movie is the opening notes of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” and the film is full of diners, classic cars, sock hops, greased hair, and other touchstones of the period. A character says “Rock and Roll has been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died,” which was also the sentiment of Don McLean’s “American Pie,” released two years before American Graffiti.
Boomers Love It
It’s a movie boomers love because it reflects possibly the most idealized version of the culture of their youth. But as a Gen Xer, I’ve long loved it too.
Directed by Lucas, who wrote it with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, American Graffiti was produced by the director’s fellow movie brat Francis Ford Coppola, and it was released in between the first two Godfather films.
Released in August of 1973 — 50 years ago this month — American Graffiti was Lucas’ second film, after the 1971 sci-fi movie THX 1138, and it was pretty clearly based on his own youth in 1950s Marin County. It’s based on characters who had just graduated high school in the class of ’62, but they’re characters who grew up almost entirely in the ’50s and were shaped by that decade.
And the characters — and us — spend the entire film listening to a nonstop soundtrack of the hit songs of the period, presided over by real-life DJ Wolfman Jack. Jack cameos in the film, as himself. The music is almost entirely diegetic, coming from the characters’ car radios and the stage of the occasional sock hop.
Something I didn’t notice until probably my 25th viewing of the movie: the role Wolfman Jack plays— talking about Wolfman Jack, without admitting that he is Wolfman Jack — is the same one Yoda does with Luke Skywalker in Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back:
The movie’s descendent Dazed and Confused — released, somehow, only 20 years later, and 30 years ago — was set on the last day of school, but American Graffiti was set on the last day of the summer, with its characters contemplating their post-high school futures. The main characters and Steve and Curt (played by the ridiculously young Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss), both of whom are about to leave for college.
Steve has just tentatively dumped his girlfriend (Cindy Williams) while Curt spends the whole movie pining over a blond girl in a white Ford Thunderbird. By the end of the movie, both have had second thoughts about whether going to college “Back East” is really for them.
The plot isn’t especially important, though, compared to the atmosphere; about 80 percent of American Graffiti is teenagers driving around Modesto, trying to get with girls, getting into drag racing showdowns, and listening to music. The film’s postscripts, about what happened to the characters in the ensuing years, are something of a gut punch.
Sure, like nearly every 1950s/early ’60s nostalgia exercise that isn’t Hairspray, there’s not a racial minority in sight, and the film does a lot of idealizing of a time in history that wasn’t exactly great for everybody. It’s a specific story, and a very good one, but it’s also certainly not a universal one, especially about that time period.
I once watched American Graffiti on a picnic blanket, on a late summer night, outdoors, in Bryant Park in New York. There, or a drive-in theater, are the ideal circumstances for watching this particular film. It’s a movie that I try to watch every single summer at least.