Director: George Lucas
If I didn’t know that American Graffiti was a George Lucas film before watching it then I would never have attributed it to him. It’s fair to say that Lucas made his name with the Star Wars franchise – indeed his name is synonymous with the space epic. As such the expectation when you hear Lucas’ name attached to a film is that somewhere along the line there will be aliens of some kind. And American Graffiti is so very different to the exact thing that has made George Lucas such an iconic, some would say cult, director.
“[…] this hugely entertaining, perceptive coming-of-age ensemble piece of high school graduates cruising through one eventful summer’s night in 1962 was inspired by 1950s teen pics but set the style – often imitated, never surpassed in hilarity, penetration, or technical virtuosity – for a hundred and one rites of passage comedies played out in classic cars to a vintage rocking soundtrack.” (556, Angela Errigo, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There are no aliens, spaceships, weapons or indeed space in American Graffiti and it’s very much grounded on Earth – early 1960s America to be exact. It’s about as different to Star Wars as you can get. There’s a wonderful nostalgia to American Graffiti that I really enjoyed.
The cars – which are without doubt the central driving force (no pun intended) of the film – are spectacular. Colorful, loud and an unabashed statement of the owners’ personality, they are as individual as the people driving them. There’s a simplicity to the premise of American Graffiti if not to the actual events of the film. The core of the film is the final night for a group of friends before they go their separate ways for university. The charm of the film comes from the hilarity that ensues as the group scatters throughout the city and the night, each having their own unique (and sometimes unbelievable) experience. As Angela Errigo says “in what was only his second feature, Lucas demonstrated a charm and warmth not found in his cool, futuristic debt, the Orwellian THX 1138 (1971)” (556)
Even in what is only his second feature film Lucas is bringing in people who will become familiar faces in is body of work with the inclusion of a young Harrison Ford as an out of town challenger to the title of Drag Race champion. There is a definite nod towards the original ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ James Dean in Paul Le Mat’s portrayal of John, the current Drag Race champion. Each character forms some new and unlikely connections during their escapades and it’s lovely to watch the original group of friends expand.
The soundtrack is indeed one of vintage rock which just increases in nostalgic feeling the older the film gets. While the performances are brilliant and very funny for me it is definitely the cars and music that stay with me after watching American Graffiti.
It seems that Lucas hit on the winning formula in his third feature (Star Wars) by combining the cool, futuristic feel of THX 1138 with the charm and warmth that permeates American Graffiti. “Shot in just twenty-eight nights for well under a million dollars, American Graffiti not only became a box-office smash, one of the most profitable pictures of all time, but it also received critical kudos and five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Director, a triumph that enabled Lucas to make an even more phenomenal mark with his next film, Star Wars (1977)” (556)
While I love Star Wars (even the much maligned prequel trilogy!) American Graffiti is a pleasant departure from Lucas’ usual fare and as such is worth watching. It showcases his ability to direct a film without having any tricks or special effects to hide behind, and makes me respect him that little bit more, which is a delightful change of pace. American Graffiti is a gem, one worth the time spent discovering it.