Friday, May 6, 2016

American Graffiti (1973)


With all the buzz going on with Star Wars, it’s classic trilogy, it’s new trilogy and the infamous prequels, it is easy to forget that George Lucas actually made a couple of other films. In fact if it weren’t for the success of American Graffiti we would never have seen Lucas’ take on space opera. I used to have this film on Laserdisc back in the day. But I haven’t actually seen the movie in years. Is it a revisit worth taking or should this get lumped over in the corner with The Phantom Menace?


Summer is coming to a close for a group of friends in Northern California. The next day some will be go off to college, some will be stuck in the small town and some will wonder what the hell happened last night. Curt (Richard Dryfuss) is struggling with the idea of going to college, but an encounter with the street gang, the Pharaohs, might give him something to think about. Steven (Ron Howard) feels that he and his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) should be able to see other people while he is in college. This little revelation doesn’t go as well as he hoped.

Meanwhile Terry (Charles Martin Smith) takes Steven’s car for a cruise and meets a fun loving blond Debbie (Candy Clark) but in an effort to impress her, he ends up on an adventure he won’t forget. Finally John is the local street-racing star. But a new challenger approaches, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) who is determined to beat John with his racing rod. John is ready to race as soon as he dumps his unwanted tag along, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who is young enough to be his little sister and is just as bratty. All these kids will find more than they bargained for (including a cameo by Wolfman Jack!) in this slice of American Graffiti.

Good Points:
  • Features some appealing performances by a talented cast
  • Captures an idealized glimpse of 1962
  • Great use of pop songs that support and help tell the story

Bad Points:
  • Some of acting isn’t quite as polished as it could be
  • All of the characters are more like archetypes than fully fleshed out people
  • The plot is paper thin to say the least


It should tell you quite a bit that this movie spawned an entire sub-genre. It was the first “last week of summer before college movie” and in my mind is probably the one to be topped. The cast does a fine job adding depth through performance for characters that aren’t too developed on the page. You end up relating to these kids and even if you didn’t grow up during the 1960s, their feelings and struggles are familiar. A spectacular soundtrack filled with great pop and rock songs makes the whole move feel like a nostalgia hued time capsule. Hop into your vintage car and cruise with Lucas down memory lane.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

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  1. For sure, it's an enjoyable film. I finally found a copy pretty cheap paired with the sequel, More American Graffiti, which I haven't watched yet. The sequel has a few of the original actors in it, but I imagine it's no where as good as the original.

    But if anything Lucas was able to capture the feel of that era, particularly in California, but really during that time, cruising, movies, reading, etc. was about the only pastime for teens. You're right too in that it was an early influence in some of the other coming of age films.

    1. Yeah I've never seen the sequel, but I heard the same thing you did, it wasn't too good.

      Yeah I was struck by how much "Dazed and Confused" owed this this movie. I still like "American Graffiti" more. :)

  2. Nostalgia is often a winning formula after a decade passes, e.g. “The Roaring Twenties” (1939). But few movies subordinate the plot to it so thoroughly as does “American Graffiti.” The overlapping vignettes evoke a time and place and aren’t intended to do much else. Fortunately, they evoke a time of life as well as a specific year, so the movie still works for those who don’t remember the summer of 1962. (I do, but I was 9 – Mackenzie Phillips’ character would have been too old for me.) Great soundtrack.

    1. One of my teachers in college felt that twenty years went by before the decade was really popular. I remember experiencing that in the 90s for certain. The 80s were considered completely lame, but man the 70s were awesome and pretty much the entire first half of "Boogie Nights" right?

      Currently I'm seeing a huge 90s nostalgia kick, especially on the internet. 90s television shows, movies and video games seem to be all the rage with a lot of folks. But interestingly the 70s nostalgia of the 90s doesn't seem to be making a come back. Odd.

    2. I think that is basically right: nostalgia peaks at 20 years. There are inklings at 10 and lingering effects at 30, but 20 is the peak. 10 for many has the "that's soooo last decade" response you mention though. The Animals did a reunion album in '77 for example that was as good as anything they did in the '60s, but it wasn't different from their old style and not enough time had passed to make the sound retro in a good way. So, critics liked it but sales were dismal.