Last few years it became very fashionable to portray 1970s as the Golden Age. People that actually had to live in that particular period had somewhat different perspective. In the Gloomy Decade lamentation over kinder and gentler past was quite fashionable. In 1973 George Lucas, young and unknown film director at the time, was one of the first to profit on such feeling of nostalgia. His semi-autobiographical drama American Graffiti, shot in four weeks with small budget, turned out to be one of the most popular, and therefore, most profitable films of the year. Financial success, critical praise and "Oscar" nominations later allowed Lucas to engage in the next and even more successful project - Star Wars.
The plot takes place in Modesto, small town in Northern California during one night in summer of 1962. Curt Henderson (played by Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (played by Ron Howard) are two high school graduates who are about to travel east next morning in order to enrol in college. Two of them have different views on their immediate future - Curt has some second thoughts about leaving friends, familiar settings and carefree teenager lifestyle; Steve is, on the other hand, quite adamant about going to college, even if it jeopardises relationship with his long time girlfriend and Steve's sister Laurie (played by Cindy Williams). Steve, while trying to settle things with Laurie, borrows his expensive car to Terry "The Toad" Fields (played by Charles Martin Smith), nerdy friend who would use that machine to cruise the town's strip and pick beautiful blonde Debbie Dunham (played by Candy Clark). John Milner (played by Paul Le Mat), the oldest of the bunch, has quite another problem - during the course of his nightly cruise, he was tricked into babysitting obnoxious 13-year old brat Carol (played by Mackenzie Phillips), and while he tries to dump her, new hotrod driver Bob Falfa (played by Harrison Ford) challenges Milner's title of local drag race king.
American Graffiti is often cited not only as one of the best 1970s, but also one of the best American films of 20th Century. On the other hand, its current popularity was perpetuated, at least partially, by the later success of Star Wars and instant name recognition of its creator. Overrated or not, American Graffiti is a fine piece of filmmaking. It has anything a good period film should have -costumes, hairstyles, cars and other details characteristic for the early 1960s, all shot by a good photography by Harry Wexler (although some scenes look too dark at times). The period atmosphere is also brought by almost semi-documentary style in which Lucas shows us fast food restaurants, drive ins, high school dances, night cruising, drag races and other social customs of that era. The characters are well written and played by a great ensemble cast of young and unknown actors who would later (at least in most of the cases) enjoy respectable careers, including Harrison Ford in a small but very uncharacteristic role of villain. The music is not original, but great nevertheless, with an excellent collection of late 1950s and early 1960s songs that play almost non-stop, followed by the voice of Wolfman Jack, legendary DJ of the period who appears in a small but memorable cameo role in the film.
However, this film, despite being very good, lost part of its initial appeal through the passage of time. Some of the flaws in the script by George Lucas and Gloria Katz are becoming more transparent - like the lack of coherent plot and adequate closure. Many situations and character types became overused in multitude in later films that covered the same period, turning American Graffiti in large collection of cliches and stereotypes. And even its message of growing up and facing the world seems less universal than Lucas wants to admit. Those who would understand this film the most are still those who used to grow up in nearly fairytale world of post-WW2 American prosperity and whose illusions got shattered by Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and great social turmoil that followed those traumatic events. The others would probably have different perspective on this film, but American Graffiti still bears the mark of a superb filmmaking talent.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on April 25th 2000)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/838-american-graffiti