Before the first Star Wars text crawl, George Lucas co-wrote and directed one of the great American films of the 70s.
This movie didn’t feature a science fiction setting or characters lifted from old pulp stories. It was about a small group of teenagers in the suburban United States dealing with the issues that come with growing up in the early 60s.
The film was called American Graffiti.
While it didn’t have a large budget or a fast paced story, it had a lot of heart, something that some of Lucas’ films lack.
In fact, I’d say that American Graffiti was the best film he ever made.
Don’t believe me? Then lets go over the five reasons American Graffiti is George Lucas’s best film.
Despite the lack of evil galactic empires or large space battles Graffiti featured a strong plot.
The film followed four teenagers during their last night together. Two of the characters, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are planning to fly off to collage the next day.
While Steve seems happy to leave the small city, Curt doesn’t feel the same way.
Over the course of the movie we see both of these characters interact with side characters and their opinions soon change.
Steve soon realizes that he doesn’t really want to leave his girlfriend (Curt’s sister) Laurie (Cindy Williams) and Curt decides that he has to move on with his life.
Theses two stories oppose each other quite well and really give both characters depth. The two routinely argue about whether or not their going and they both surprise each other with their final choice.
Their two other friends John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry “Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) also grow despite not having to leave their lives behind them.
John is the top street racer in the area and is using this reputation more than his education. While it’s not clear what level of education he’s finished, what is clear is that he doesn’t want to grow up and move on.
However, after a run in with another rival racer, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) he seemingly figures out that this isn’t the life he wants forever.
Toad on the other hand has a completely different story arc, starting as a cowardly geek, who doesn’t have much luck with women, ends up finding more courage inside him after spending the night cruising with a girl (Candy Clark).
All of the characters learn very different things about themselves over the course of the night.
While some of these plot points aren’t as flushed out as Curt and Steve’s night it’s still a lot of plot to fit into a movie, and the movie does it quite well.
The films writer Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck worked on a combined four drafts (two of them were only done by Lucas) and the script polishing really shows, making the film stronger for it.
Once again, strong plots aren’t something that Lucas was known for after the last three Star Wars films.
From the opening scene of the movie featuring Bill Haley and His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock and the visual of the dinner sets up the fact that this small town is almost a character unto itself.
For most of the film the characters end up driving around the town moving from plot point to plot point. The visuals of old tube TVs and hot rod cars make the film stand out from other films of the era.
The film was shot in a small town and it’s clear that several streets had to be used a number of times.
There’s a bank that appears several times in the background throughout the film, it’s almost kind of a game to find it as the film progresses.
The film also dealt with the American cruising culture and the idea of kids driving their parent’s cars around the town was something that Lucas wanted to focus on. This culture more or less died out after the 60s.
What is a film without a soundtrack?
A silent film…that’s not funny
American Graffiti featured many artists from the 50s and 60s Rock and Roll, Doo-wop period, artists such as The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Platters and Fats Domino.
It’s difficult for the viewer not to have these tunes stuck in their heads after the movies over. This era of music gave the world some of the catchiest songs in history and helps movie move from character to character.
In the addition to the soundtrack, Lucas also cast then famous Robert Weston Smith who was famous for his American disc jockey persona, the Wolfman.
The Wolfman (I hear he liked people to clap for him) is heard all throughout the film and is shown in one scene of the film.
While he wants Curt to think that he isn’t the famous disc jockey his words of advice helps him realize that he needs to move on and go to school.
A number of soundtracks have been released throughout the years for Graffiti. iTunes has more than it’s fair share of available for cheap, you’ll want to look into them after seeing the film.
The Coming of Age Story:
The coming of age story is important to film. At some point in our lives we’ve all watched movies or read books that features this type of plot and felt a connection to it.
Whether it’s movies like American Graffiti or Breakfast Club or books like Catcher in the Rye the idea of growing up is something teens all grapple with.
Everyone deals with it in our own ways. In American Graffiti we see four different characters deal with it differently. Steve realizes that he isn’t as ready as he hoped while Curt finds out that the only thing holding him back is himself.
Toad realizes that he has to try new things to find out who he is and John figures out that he needs to make up for not growing up sooner.
These characters all represent someone out there and are easily understood by the viewer. Conveying all four of these ideas can be difficult for a film however Graffiti seems to pull it off quite well.
Truly American Graffiti should be held in the same regard as any John Hughes film.
George Lucas Cared:
One thing Lucas’s critics say about him is that he hasn’t had the same focus with his new films as he did in his early career.
American Graffiti was Lucas’ second film after making his Sci Fi film THX-138. At this time Lucas was very much motivated and was on the top of his game.
While his career would really sky rocket after the original Star Wars film, it’s clear that the first film in the saga wasn’t the best-directed film. The film was famously saved by great editing (done by Paul Hirsch, Marica Lucas and Richard Chew) and by John Williams film score.
In Graffiti, Lucas demonstrated that he was a strong director and he could make a great film.
The shots from inside the cars allow the viewer to feel like their sitting in the car with the actors over hearing their dialogue.
The shooting is simplistic but it matches the film to a tee. The movie didn’t need a lot of fancy shooting techniques or animation; it just needed the actors to tell the story.
Despite this there are some issues, mainly with shifting darkness of the night. At times the film goes from the dark of the night to twilight of early morning and then back to night. This is more than likely due to the films shoestring budget. While it’s noticeable at times, the film isn’t any worse for it.
Lucas also demonstrated his ability to fight for his film.
After his first film THX-138 didn’t make a lot of money the idea of another genre film didn’t excite United Artist, the company who distributed THX. So Lucas shopped his script around for two years before landing a deal with Universal Pictures on the condition that the film got a big name to work on it.
Once Francis Ford Coppola (Godfather) agreed to produce the project got under way. However, Lucas would still have to fight for having his wife Marcia Lucas edit the film.
However, once the film was finished the studio got one of the best films of 1973. American Graffiti was even nominated for Best Picture at that years Academy Awards.
While the image of Jar-Jar and re-edited Star Wars films may cause fans a lot of a pain, we can’t forget that Lucas has captured lighting in a bottle a number of times.
We all know about the success of Star Wars and Indian Jones, but I think fans need to take another look at American Graffiti.
Now Howard the Duck on the other hand, that’s a different story.