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Summer Nostalgia with "American Graffiti"

Updated on February 28, 2015

Summer is upon us and regular film-goers know this is the season for big-budget entertainment at the cinema. Yet, there are films out there that exemplify that nostalgic summer feeling that don’t fall under the “blockbuster” label. One of the best nostalgic-based films that pinpoints a specific time period is 1973’s “American Graffiti.” Directed by George Lucas, the film represented an innocent, pre-Vietnam period where America’s youth was innocent enough to experience the growing pains of young adulthood, first loves, and vintage American Rock n’ Roll.

Over the course of a late August night in 1962, a group of high school graduates celebrate one last hurrah cruising the city streets in northern California. This single night was a point in time when these characters are still naïve about life but are also contemplating their futures as they mature into adults. Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams) were the class sweethearts wondering if they should see other people while away at college. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) was the drag racer, Toad (Charles Martin Smith) was the awkward geek, and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) was the lovelorn mature friend having second thoughts on his future.

For my generation, it was the known as "the movie George Lucas made before Star Wars." It was a movie that represented a time period in America our grandparents grew up in. Yet, there is something about the film that can still be appealing for younger generation. For myself, I wanted the experience of attending a California high school in the late 50s/early 60s. Lucas was able to achieve this fantasy because of how personal the film is about his adolescence. He based its story and its characters on his favorite passions growing up: racing cars, vintage rock n’ roll, and young love . Characters such as Curt Henderson (Dreyfuss) represented Lucas’s personality and John Milner (Paul Le Mat) represented Lucas’s love of cars and drag racing. Toad (Charles Martin Smith) represented the awkwardness of growing up.

One of the biggest highlights for the film is its best-selling soundtrack. Lucas hand picked the 41 classic rock n' roll, doo-wop, and pop songs of that era. Bill Haley and the Comet's iconic "Rock Around the Clock" appropriately opens the film. Del Shannon's "Runaway" plays over the scene of dozens of classic cars cruise downtown. The Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari" marks a turning point for that era. John Milner dismisses the song as it plays on the radio. According to him, "Rock n' Roll has been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died." Each song fits perfectly throughout the film. The contemporary nostalgic band Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids portrayed Herbie and the Heartbeats at the school sock hop and have a few songs on the soundtrack.

At the time, the film was made on a shoe-string budget with a group of relatively no-name actors. While Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford have become big names in Hollywood, they were just young, struggling actors looking for their first big break. Lucas submitted the film treatment to several major studies until Universal Pictures took a chance on him and gave him just $775,000 to produce the film. Upon release in August, 1973, “American Graffiti” proved to be a box-office success. Audiences at the time were made up of that generation that grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, the youth audience at the time was able to identify with the young characters with uncertain futures.

Just in time for this summer is the release of American Graffiti on Blu-ray. Audiences can now appreciate the improved picture quality and sound. Lucas and producer Francis Ford Coppola know how to shoot a film, even on a budget. At the time, instead of using the more expensive CinemaScope, the film was shot documentary-style on Techniscope, a preferred camera film for low budget productions with cinematographers Jan D'Alquen and Ron Eveslage. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler is credited as a "visual consultant."

Special features on the Blu-ray include a retrospective documentary about the making of the film. Lucas discusses his childhood and the teenage years he spent racing cars and filming his own amateur films. The cast looked back at a time in their young careers when they were looking for their breakout hit yet filmed this movie with no idea how it will be received. Also included is clips from pre-production screen tests amongst the cast. A long-haired Paul Le Met improvises dialogue with pre-pubescent actress Mackenzie Phillips (Carol) inside his car. Howard, Dreyfuss, and Le Mat hang around a parked truck contemplating how to spend their last night in town. It's interesting to see these young actors develop a sense of rapport with each other in the characters they are trying to create as an extension of their own persona.

"American Graffiti" represents a pop culture genre which tries to reach two generations of audiences. These cases tend to attempt to grab the attention of teenagers and young adults (a consumer-driven market) and older generations. Movies and TV shows appeal to the young viewers using common young adult themes in any given time period. They also paint the story and character's dialogue in a time period that older generations experienced. Examples include television shows "The Wonder Years" and "That '70s Show" and films like "Stand By Me." Even the recent film "Super 8" puts young, likable kids in 1979 small-town Ohio that represents writer/director J.J. Abrams' upbringing of shooting amateur movies and watching classic Stephen Spielberg films (the influence is only furthered with Spielberg's producer credit).

When release in 1973, young audiences connected with the characters while their parents connected with the experience. Almost forty years later, the film still stands on its own. The appeal of its young characters, the pacing of the story, its integration of music into cinematic scenes all hold up. And as someone who grew up on 90s alternative rock and punk, the film's soundtrack has been a stable of my summer playlist for the past several years. I've grown to love that vintage sound and I associate the roots of angst, young love, and nostalgia.


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