Where were you in ’62? George Lucas was cruising the strip in hot rods.
After his debut feature, the offbeat THX-1138, flopped the filmmaker reached back to his formative experiences for American Graffiti (1973), an easy-going “night in the life” portrait of high-school grads on the last blast of summer before heading off to college.
Richard Dreyfuss takes his first leading role as the ostensible lead in a big ensemble cast that includes Ron Howard and Cindy Williams as high school sweethearts faced with going to separate colleges, Paul LeMat as a would-be ladies man in a souped-up ride, Charles Martin Smith as a shy geek who answers to the nickname “Toad” and lands a gorgeous date (Candy Clark), and Mackenzie Phillips as younger kid determined to hang with the seniors.
Nothing much really happens as they hit the sock-hop, cruise the strip, grab a bite at the drive-in, and square off in a drag race on the outskirts of town. It’s more of a mosaic, jumping from character to character over the long, last night, and is carried by the personalities of his teenage characters and texture of the culture onscreen: the clothes and hairdos, the details of the cars of the hot rod culture, the waitresses roller skating the food out to the busy drive-in patrons. It all plays to a jukebox soundtrack of 50s and early 60s hits emanating from the AM radio that every single car in town is tuned to, with Wolfman Jack himself deejaying the journey.
But there is also a bittersweet quality to the journey as the four friends prepare themselves to move on from their high school identities and start life as adults somewhere new and unfamiliar.
The movie was not just a big hit but seemed to ignite a wave of nostalgia. The soundtrack album spawned a veritable industry in oldies collections and Ron Howard jumped to the small screen to lead the hit sitcom Happy Days, which seemed to directly rework parts the movie for the screen.
Francis Ford Coppola, who had championed Lucas early on, was producer, but this was Lucas’s baby all the way. It was the inaugural film from Lucasfilm and the director used his newfound clout to make a film that the studios were unconvinced would find an audience, a little science fiction adventure by the name of Star Wars.
Bo Hopkins costars, Suzanne Somers plays the blonde in the T-Bird, and Harrison Ford has a small role as a big-talking hot-shot looking for a street race.
It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, director, and original screenplay, and the screenplay (which Lucas wrote with USC film school buddies Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) won awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. It was added to the National Film Directory in 1995.
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American Graffiti [Blu-ray]
American Graffiti [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
American Graffiti [DVD]
Lucas supervised the digital remaster for the Blu-ray debut and recorded a new video picture-in-picture commentary for the release, which pops in and out of the film but is pretty consistent throughout. There’s also a function to identify the songs. Ported over from previous releases is Laurent Bouzreau’s excellent 78-minute “The Making of American Graffiti” and 22 minutes of screen tests.