Before George Lucas set off for a galaxy far, far away, he explored a much more familiar territory in “American Graffiti”: his adolescent years that were often spent cruising around the streets of Modesto, California. This, of course, didn’t take place a long time ago, either-just the 1960s, which perhaps does seem like longer ago now than it did when the film was released in 1973. However, regardless of its age, Lucas’s second feature film remains timeless and still stands as one of American cinema’s definitive treatments of youth, innocence, nostalgia, and growing up.
Summer is drawing to a close, but the streets of Modesto are bustling with teenage excitement; kids are dragging main and hanging out at Mel’s Drive-In as they desperately cling to their carefree days. The film chronicles this night, focusing particularly on four protagonists who are at a crossroads of some sort. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are long time buddies who have graduated and pledged to go off to college together, while their friend Terry “Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) still has one more year of high school to go. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is a local institution who already graduated a couple of years back and never left, preferring to stick around in his signature ride, which is the fastest in town.
“American Graffiti” is a rich tapestry that seamlessly weaves together a multitude of events-some petty, some serious-into one epic night. Few films have been able to match its combination of low-brow teen hijinx with coming-of-age themes. As the night progresses, the characters have both engaged in mischievous pranks and serious, relatable conflicts: Curt can’t quite decide if he wants to go away to college, while Steve is trying to un-tether himself from his girlfriend (Cindy Williams) who will still be in high school next year. John might be a local legend and the film’s rebel without a cause, but one can already gather a sense of fading glory, especially when he’s challenged by out-of-town hothead Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). Meanwhile, Toad serves as the reminder of what these characters are either leaving behind (in Curt and Steve’s case) or desperately hanging onto (in Milner’s case), as he spends much of his carefree night with a girl a few years older than him.
These characters, which are brought to life by a pitch-perfect cast, emerge as the most memorable aspect of the film, as they represent a swath of Americana. The film is also populated by a multitude of minor personalities, such as a gang of Greasers and a mysterious blonde girl with whom Curt instantly falls in love and chases throughout the night. John finds himself saddled with his complete opposite in Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a young teenybopper who idolizes him. This odd couple pairing leads to many of the film’s best scenes, as Phillips’s vibrant naivety is a stark contrast to the older Milner who is trying to hold on to his youth, one race at a time. Of course, one of the film’s most important characters is heard more than seen: the radio itself, which blares on every radio throughout town. It seems as though Modesto only has one station, and it’s helmed by the legendary Wolfman Jack, who ends up offering the film’s most sage wisdom. Standing in contrast to the film’s more authoritative adult figures, it seems appropriate that this howling man-child speaks most directly to the teenage soul.
The film’s soundtrack, which plays in nearly every scene, serves multiple functions: it obviously ties the film and its characters together, acting as sort of universal conduit that reaches across social status-after all, the film finds the straight-and-narrow Curt mixing up with the aforementioned Greasers-and perhaps subtly reinforces that youth itself is a universal experience that ties us all together. The music also allows the film to glide seamlessly from one scene to the next, as editors Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas take a sprawling narrative and deliver a concise tale that’s continually in motion, not unlike the cars that are constantly flowing through Modesto. By the end of the film, one gathers the sense that they have truly witnessed the triumphs and tragedies of an entire evening, and there hasn’t been a dull moment.
Of course, the music is also a key component in creating the film’s nostalgic tone; littered with hits of the era by artists like Bill Haley and His Comets, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, the film no doubt serves as a trip down memory lane for those who lived through it. For those who didn’t, the music captures the age and places the film in a time capsule. However, this doesn’t make the film any less timeless, as nostalgia and wistfulness are cinematic themes that stretch across all eras. At the end of its long night, “American Graffiti” essentially asks one simple question: “remember the good old days?”
Lucas’s film wasn’t the first to do look back like this; in fact, Peter Bogdanovich cast a lens on the 1950s with his elegiac “The Last Picture Show” in 1971. However, unlike that film, “American Graffiti” is generally more cheerful and longing in its gaze. One can see this at the level of simple visuals-“Last Picture Show” is captured in a desolate black and white, while “Graffiti” is as colorful as its title suggests. Whereas Bogdanovich is concerned with the destruction of innocence, Lucas is content to have his characters teeter on the edge of growing up-some realize that “you can’t stay 17 forever,” while others resist this fact.
Curiously, the film’s eerily silent epilogue does reassure us that innocence will be lost; it casts the film in sharp relief and reminds us that vibrant youth will eventually yield to the milieu of age. This only reinforces that, yes, the good old days were better, and that we’d all be better off if we could stay 17 forever. Great films of this type always seem to be set at some sort of ending or transition-here, it’s the end of summer, that time of year where youth must annually be reminded that it’s time to move on and grow up a little bit. The desire to hold on to summer days each year is only magnified as one grows older, and Lucas captures this perfectly by reminding us that modern ills can’t always be drowned out by the howls of Wolfman Jack.
“American Graffiti’s” effectiveness is revealed in its influence as well; though Lucas might be remembered for revolutionizing the Hollywood business with his New Hollywood cohorts, he should be given equal credit for pioneering the teen film genre. There had been teen films before, but few felt as authentic and genuine as Lucas’s film. Many of its characters serve as stock templates that still populate teen comedies-the film features good guys, cool bad guys, jocks, greasers, nerds, good girls, and even bad girls. The film’s climax brings them all together in a thrilling sequence at the most famous teen film arena: the drag strip, whose combatants have included everyone from James Dean to John Travolta over the years.
The characters’ other situations have also been recycled for decades-how many times have we seen a geek like Toad end up with a girl that’s out-of-his-league? The idea of long-time friends parting ways has even been echoed as recently as 2007 in “Superbad.” The film’s mixture of nostalgia, comedic antics, and coming-of-age tropes resulted in a wave of similar films: “Grease,” “Porky’s,” and even the Israeli-produced “Lemon Popsicle” series, which proves that “American Graffiti’s” teenage experience extends across language and cultural barriers. Other landmark films in the genre borrowed its concept or structure-Cameron Crowe’s screenplay extended the action to the course of a year as it followed the exploits of an ensemble cast in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” while Richard Linklater dressed it up in 70s clothes for the similarly nostalgic “Dazed and Confused.”
While many films and filmmakers have had the tendency to reflect back on the eras of their youth, few have done so as effectively as “American Graffiti.” And because of it, we can rest assured that they will continue to do so. The promotional material for the film asks, “where were you in ’62?” I wasn’t even a glimmer in the universe’s eye when the film was released in ’73, so ’62 is even more distant; however, I have little doubt that some aspiring filmmaker from my generation will one day ask, “where were you in ’02?” When the time comes, I’ll still be able to point to “American Graffiti” as the answer. Maybe I wasn’t dragging main street or aggravating cops like these kids during that last summer of adolescence, but I did share their anxieties and their steady realization that we won’t always be able to rock around the clock. Because it is so finely attuned to such sensibilities, this film stands as Lucas’s triumph in honest and genuine film-making.