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Retro review: 'American Graffiti' shines bright nearly 50 years later

George Lucas’ second feature film, which was released in 1973, often gets lost in the Star Wars’ creator’s filmography, but it’s an excellent movie that ignites nostalgia.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Watching classic films is good for the soul. At least that’s what I told myself in mid-March, when movie theaters across the country started shutting down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that time, I’ve revisited many movies on Blu-ray, with classics from Universal Pictures in particular getting lots of primetime viewing from the comfort of my living room.

“American Graffiti,” the second of six feature movies directed by George Lucas, premiered in 1973 and was distributed by Universal Pictures. Made by Lucasfilm in collaboration with American Zoetrope, a San Francisco-based production company founded by Francis Ford Coppola with Lucas, the film was produced by Coppola with Gary Kurtz. It was a massive success theatrically, despite Lucas still being relatively unknown outside of the University of Southern California filmmaking community at the time, and it remains one of the most successful features in Hollywood history, in terms of production costs versus revenue.

With a budget of less than $800,000, “American Graffiti” earned a combined $115 million from its initial release and when it returned to theaters to celebrate its five-year anniversary in 1978. It also had a successful 25th anniversary campaign in 1998, which included the movie being remastered for a special edition VHS release.

My first exposure to the film came with the 25th anniversary release. I was 13 years old in 1998, and much of my interest in cinema at the time was influenced by my mother. Two of her favorite movies were “American Graffiti” and “Grease,” which premiered in 1978. My mother made sure I was exposed to both films when they had anniversary releases in the ’90s and she got me a special edition copy of “American Graffiti,” which I watched to the point it’s a small miracle that I never broke the tape from too many viewings.

Even though it had been more than 20 years since I had first watched “American Graffiti,” my recent visit with the film recaptured a lot of the raw emotions I remember experiencing from that initial screening, which is powerful considering I hadn’t watched even a clip of the film in half a decade.

Starring Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark and a fiery 12-year-old Mackenzie Phillips, “American Graffiti” is packed with talented actors. Harrison Ford plays a key secondary character named Bob Falfa, and is joined by Wolfman Jack who has an excellent cameo.

Opening with a shot of Mel’s Diner, and structured around Howard and Dreyfuss, who play Steve and Curt, respectively, the film’s plot and through line couldn’t be any more straightforward. With a script by Lucas, with Gloria Katz and Willard Hyuck, the setup is simple: Steve and Curt are recent high school graduates living in Modesto, California, who are meant to get on an airplane the next day so that they can start life as college students out east. Steve seems anxious to leave town, despite being in a serious relationship with Laurie (played by Williams), while Curt meanders, questioning his future with a hint of nostalgia and romanticism driving him.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

With a hit soundtrack that went platinum, which includes Ford’s hearty rendition of the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune “Some Enchanted Evening,” Lucas revisits an exaggerated and semi-autobiographical version of his 1962, but he does it just a decade later, giving him enough perspective and distance to flesh out his world that’s about to be upturned with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and other baggage that he would have carried with him as he transitioned into the ’70s.

“Where were you in ’62” is the slogan most commonly associated with “American Graffiti.” For me the answer is simple: I wasn’t on the scene yet but watching this movie makes me nostalgic for something I never experienced. I want to drive a hot rod down the strip in Modesto, make fun and heckle old classmates, and it would be nice to revisit friends who are just starting to figure things out for themselves.

Beyond my feelings and the personal experiences I bring to watching “American Graffiti”, it’s the defining coming-of-age comedy that sets the stage for many of the ’80s movies that cover similar ground, such as John Hughes’ canon of “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and more. “American Graffiti” is not perfect, and the era itself had its problems, but it’s nice to take a two-hour timeout, visit Mel’s to get some tasty diner food, head off to the sock hop and dance to some great tunes, cruise around with the Pharaohs, and see what Steve and Curt are considering leaving behind as they close a formidable chapter of their lives.



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