Before racing pods over the desert landscape of Tatooine, George Lucas was racing cars over the streets of his hometown, Modesto, California. Over the years of cinematic history, few films have so deftly captured the essence of adolescent life and independence as “American Graffiti,” Lucas’ second directorial effort (the sci-fi “THX 1138”with Robert Duvall came first).
The personal and poignant coming-of-age story is often overshadowed by his groundbreaking blockbuster work in a galaxy far, far away that began in 1977. With the release of the more modest “Graffiti”in 1973, Lucas showed us what it was like for his generation, the baby boomers, to grow up in the 1950s and early ‘60s: racing cars, picking up girls at the local drive-in (where you could get the all-American meal of a cheeseburger, fries and a perspiring glass of cherry cola delivered to you by a waitress on roller skates), and listening to the “devil’s music” that was rock ’n’ roll.
Even 40 years later the Oscar-nominated movie still holds up, not only as a detailed period piece, but as a picturesque example of teenage life right before the Vietnam War and hippie counterculture; the twilight years of the “Leave It to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Andy Griffith”wholesome ‘50s family values — when people still said “Golly!” “Gee whiz!” and “That’s swell!”
They really were “Happy Days” and it’s no wonder that the film reignited an interest in the time period, inspiring the television show named after those times when America enjoyed prosperity after World War II. That’s right, you have “American Graffiti” to thank for the exemplar of cool that was Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli and his iconic catchphrase, “Ayyyy!”
Set in Lucas’ hometown (but actually filmed in Petaluma, California), “Graffiti” centers on a group of friends, recent high school graduates, who enjoy one last night of debauchery before facing the start (and trials and tribulations) of their adult lives the next morning. Throughout the course of the night, they explore personal relationships, search for love, get laid, buy alcohol illegally, mess with the cops, race cars, go to sock hops and get embroiled with gangs of greasers.
The plot switches between characters and stories in such a way that makes it feel like a vintage episode of “Game of Thrones.” Of all the actors, the three most famous that you’ll recognize are a predirectorial Ron Howard as Steve Bolander, a pre-“Jaws”and “Close Encounters”Richard Dreyfuss as Curt Henderson, and a pre-Han Solo or Indiana Jones Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa. And, like a Charlie Brown cartoon (with very few exceptions), the adults are nowhere to found, allowing the teens to cruise around in their cars and get into all kinds of trouble without any kind of supervision to speak of.
This “cruising” culture was an expression of freedom that many young people, embarrassed by their overbearing parents, can no doubt relate to in almost any decade. In particular, cars played a big part during the 1950s and early ‘60s, especially in the lives of teenagers, Lucas being no exception. Hot rods like the ’32 Deuce Coupe, ’55 Chevy, ’58 Impala, ’56 T-Bird, and ’51 Mercury are just a few of the popular vehicles associated with the time that help entrench the film in even more period detail.
One of the movie’s most defining features is its soundtrack. Foregoing an original score, Lucas chose songs from the actual time period: doo-wop and rock ’n’ roll pieces from the likes of Del Shannon, Chuck Berry, and The Beach Boys that make the experience all the more encompassing. They give off such a ‘50s vibe that you half expect a culture-shocked Marty McFly to stumble onscreen in his anachronistic ‘80s “life preserver” vest. All the while, the songs are played over the radio by Wolfman Jack, a disc jockey of the time famous for his distinct gravelly voice.
In fact, a good chunk of the small budget of $777,000 (about $4.2 million in today’s money) went to clearing the music licensing rights and no money was left over for a traditional score. Such a move was virtually unheard of in the early ‘70s, yet, in a fortuitous turn of events, it paid off: the soundtrack produced 41 hits that you could buy as a two-record set when the movie was released in theaters. Nowadays, it’s common to hear tons of period-specific music, from Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” all the way to David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.”
While we all love a good lightsaber duel and the asthmatic breathing of Darth Vader, “American Graffiti” is worth viewing because it is a lesser-known movie that proved George Lucas was capable of a literally more down-to-earth picture that was extremely close to his heart and his fellow baby boomers.
It was his love letter to his youth, like “E.T.” was for Steven Spielberg or “Super 8” for J.J. Abrams. So, before you go all Luke Skywalker by jumping into your X-Wing to blow up the Death Star, take a moment to be like The Fonz: punch the jukebox, hop into your sweet ride and rock around the clock.