American Graffiti (1973)
I caught this by sheer chance, knowing that American Graffiti (1973) was made by George Lucas pre Star Wars this I couldn’t pass up. Able to see into what the director had to offers us before he helped to change the landscape of film forever with his later blockbusters. Made very much as a love note to his own youth, brimming over with atmospheric music and cars that don;t just shine but glimmer on the screen. Even today, more than forty years after its release there is still a real sense of love and nostalgia for this time which feels lost.
Taking place over the course of a night and one morning we follow a group of young people who have just finished high-school, ready to go off in their different directions. beginning the night at the place to be, the drive in diner, a massive set piece covered in neon lighting that oozes the past, of the late fifties, and early sixties as 5 kids make the transition from kid to adult in the space of a night, well almost. Filled with new faces eager to make a name for themselves, actors that we would see throughout the next decade or so of film. It’s odd to see a pre-moustached Richard Dreyfuss with a few extra pounds, whilst Ron Howard is about to break into his own stride with Happy Days before turning to directing. You could say this film was a training ground for both director and actors, all out to prove they could make a film, not set in the present day but the not so distant past, something audiences could can still identify with. It doesn’t matter the era, it’s the sense of the impending future that could and will change everything around them, as a major life event can change relationships.
Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are at opposite sides of whether to leave for college (university, I always get confused). Steve is ready for the new challenge, wanting to embrace it. Whilst Curt is yet to make his mind up, he has no ties, no girl to keep him in town, something is stopping him, himself. It’s Steve who then leaves to spend one last night with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) who want to act like adults, even agreeing to see other people during his first term (semester) away. It gets messy for them. Whilst for two other men of the group they leave in their cars. John (Paul Le Mat) is given Steve’s car to look after, taking his chance to find a girl whilst driving the city streets at night. Whilst drag racer Terry (Charles Martin Smith) is trying to stay out of trouble.
Each member of the group of friends travels the streets in cars, allowing them one last time to enjoy the freedom of the road and time in-between high-school and college. Theres a real feeling of excitement on these streets, as the race each other, cause trouble, just wanting to have fun before the hard work really begins for these carefree people. All these characters are fleshed out enough that you can see something in each them that we can find in people we know ourselves. All coming from Lucas’s own childhood before leaving for a galaxy far, far away. Everyone is having fun, stretching their talents to see what they can do.
Taking place over the course of a matter of hours, our time with these people is even more precious, going back and forth between each one. Not one of them gets more screen time. Even though today we would say Dreyfuss and Howard as they are still prominent figures. What I will take away from this film is the classic cars, a part of Americana, the giant bodywork that you just don’t see today. The soundtrack too is one that wherever you were in the film was always humming along like a car-radio keeping things loose and carefree whilst everything wasn’t quite going to plan. A sometimes forgotten film, when you look at the career of Lucas, who did go onto better things, going completely independent from the studios, showing that he could make a movie and have a good time on terra firm before he got carried away with perfecting his vision of Star Wars which has transcended time to become more than he ever thought.