American Graffiti Review

After toying with short films and producing the impressive lo-fi flick THX 1138, director George Lucas churned out his first mainstream flick in 1973, the year known more for prominent pictures such as The Exorcist, Last Tango In Paris and The Sting. American Graffiti was Lucas' paean to the teen culture world of late fifties/early sixties drive-ins, hot-rods, rock'n'roll, drag racing and staying out late, and the film is more concerned with shining a nostalgic light on the period as opposed to portraying the plights of individual characters.


Structured around various characters and stories that inter-link loosely, American Grafitti tells of a single night in the early Sixties, where the lives of four friends are explored. Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) are set to leave for college the very next day, and they are relishing the new challenge after much hard work throughout their school life. Curt is single, and craves excitement, but Steve is leaving behind his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), who is also Curt's younger sister. Remaining at home however, are Terry (Charles Martin Smith), a geeky hanger-on, and John (Paul Le Mat), the oldest of the gang, who prides himself on having the fastest car in the valley, and having never lost a drag race. The film shifts focus wildly amongst these central characters, and attempts to encapsulate a typical night in the life of teenagers of the time. Essentially, American Graffiti was one of the first examples of Generation X, and you can spot its influences on films such as Dazed And Confused, Reality Bites and Clerks.


Although American Graffiti is highly regarded as an American classic, it falls flat on a number of reasons. Firstly, the film relies too heavily on fifties nostalgia, and though this may have seemed a novelty in 1973, it has been severely worn out in 2001. Don't forget, that this film was made a year before Happy Days and the numerous other rehashes. Secondly, because it relies so heavily on nostalgia, the film puts less stock in a properly structured screenplay, and American Graffiti lacks a strong enough thread to pull the audience through the film. Within ten minutes of it commencing, you know it's not going anywhere. Because of this, certain sequences that had potential on paper are severely weakened on screen. This is particularly evident in the scenes in which Curt (Richard Dreyfuss' character) meets the Wolfman DJ. What could have been a poignant and touching scene, with a dose of the fantastical, is dramatically deadened because the scene isn't given enough emphasis.


Acting wise, the film is acceptable, and it's easy to understand why some of the actors went on to incredible stardom. Richard Dreyfuss oozes charm and likeable appeal, and Curt is the fullest drawn character of the film. Ron Howard has that goofy all-American look, and even though his acting range isn't defined spectacularly, it's not hard to see why he was cast as Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. Charles Martin Smith, Kathleen Quinlan, Cindy Williams, Bo Hopkins, Paul Le Mat and even Harrison Ford were all given career springboards in American Graffiti, and they all possess a fresh innocence that isn't attributed to their subsequent more successful films.

Production wise, the film takes its budget to the limit on creating the nostalgic fifties look, but the film is too gloomy none the same (especially as most scenes are at night). It feels like a nineteen seventies' sensibility remix of the nineteen fifties, and Lucas clearly shows where his bias lies between the battle of the rock'n'roll of the fifties and surfer slacker cool of the sixties, both with the choice of soundtrack songs and his character construction (John is clearly a James Dean wannabe). The film doesn't feel like it's set in the sixties, and isn't believable because of this. Paul Le Mat's character John even states in the movie that "Rock'n'roll's been going downhill ever since buddy holly died!"


American Graffiti has a huge fanbase, but is too traditional in its nostalgic revisit of fifties/sixties America. It certainly is watchable, but nowhere near the all-time classic it's been branded. If anything, it clearly shows that Lucas' efforts were better put to other genres.

Academy Awards 1973
None.

Academy Award Nominations 1973
Best Picture
Best Director - George Lucas
Best Supporting Actress - Candy Clark
Best Film Editing - Verna Fields, Marcia Lucas
Best Original Screenplay - Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, George Lucas

Picture
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the print is clean and dirt free for the most part, but is relatively gloomy, in the same vein as most early seventies films.

Sound
Presented in a 2.0 mix, the sound effects and music numbers have a slight emphasis on surround, but the rest of the sounds in the film all appear in mono. The mix is unbalanced, and the dialogue is often swamped by the sounds of cars driving along or the overbearing music numbers.

Extras


Menu: A static menu, with cartoon-esque graphics of various symbols from the film, such as Mel's Drive-In.

Packaging: A standard Universal amaray release, with an uninspired cartoon drawing of the cast ensemble on the cover. Also included is an eight-page fold out booklet, which includes some quotes from all of the important members of the cast and crew and some brief info on the film. Chapter Listings for the film and the feature length documentary are also included.

The Making Of American Graffiti - Documentary: A tremendous seventy-eight minute documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau, the master of DVD special editions who has produced excellent documentaries for such DVD releases as Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Rear Window, Scarface, Taxi Driver, Carrie and The Last Picture Show. Every element of the production is detailed intensely, and interviews from all of the cast and crew are present, including a very large portion from writer/director George Lucas. This is the sort of documentary that renders commentaries superfluous, hence the omission of one. Presented in 4:3 fullscreen.

Trailer: A near three minute original trailer, which manages to illustrate the nostalgic fifties/sixties look of the film, without actually suggesting what the primary plot strand actually is, kind of like the film itself.

Cast And Crew: Some detailed text pages showing some small portions of information regarding the cast and crew, compete with pictures so you can identify the harder-to-remember ones.

Production Notes: Some brief production notes skimming the surface of the film's production, and totally unnecessary if selected after watching the extensive documentary.

Weblink: A weblink to Universal Studios webpage.

Conclusion
Maybe it's because we're British, or maybe it's because the film has lost most of its charm over the years, but either way, American Graffiti isn't as good as the praise that has been heaped on it. The picture and sound qualities could have been much improved and the extras on the disc are fairly sparse, discounting the huge and brilliant documentary that fully complements the film.

Film
6 out of 10
Video
6 out of 10
Audio
5 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

5

out of 10

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