Born in the mid 70’s and growing up in the 80’s I was a huge Star Wars fan (I still have some of the toys in my loft) so it would come as a surprise to many people who know me that I am suggesting American Graffiti could be Lucas’s best film. It is probably considered fashionable at the moment to knock the Star Wars prequels and declare THX 1138 his best film (that I am also a fan of by the way) but there is a simple purity to American Graffiti.
So what’s it all about? Two friends Steve (Ron Howard – pre Happy Days) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) spend the night cruising around their hometown the night before they are due to go to college. They both have doubts about their futures. The film is also peppered with other characters. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) drives a ’32 Ford hot rod and is the man to beat in town. He ends up as “chauffer” to a young girl while being Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) is looking for him to race (driving the 55’ Chevy from Two-Lane Blacktop). Terry “Toad” (Charlie Martin Smith) gets himself in trouble when he borrows Steve’s car and picks up Deb (Candy Clark). While this is going on Steve’s is having problems with his girlfriend Laurie(Cindy Williams) (who is also Curt’s sister) when he suggests they see other people while he is away at college. Curt gets mixed up with a gang calling themselves The Pharaohs while searching town for a beautiful and mysterious blond driving a Ford T-Bird. All this is done to a great rock & roll soundtrack courtesy of local DJ Wolfman Jack (playing himself).
So why is the film so good? Put simply the film is real. Although the film is fictional it is based on George Lucas’s real experiences of cruising in 1960’s Modesto California and has been suggested some of the characters are based on him. Cruising was dying out in the 70’s and there was a certain amount of nostalgia for it. It had been an important part of the lives of kids in America during an important transitional time in their lives. As kids could get driving licenses a lot younger than they could get into bars it was a social thing. He even used Wolfman Jack a real DJ of the time to play himself.
The soundtrack is made up almost entirely of existing songs slotted in appropriately in place of a conventional score. This had previously been done in Easy Rider but was still a new concept. It was accomplished by offering the music companies a flat fee deal to use there music. It allowed them access to a huge number of songs at a reduced rate although over 10% of the films total budget went on music licensing. The downside was that they failed to do a deal with RCA so there is no Elvis in the film but there is lots of great must including: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Del Shannon, The Big Bopper and The Platters.
Shot in just under a month in and around San Francisco including San Rafael and Petaluma. One of the most famous sets was Mel’s Drive-in restaurant on the corner of South Van Ness Avenue & Mission Street. It was closed down at the time and was demolished shortly after production. Shot using Tachniscope that had proved so successful on Two-Lane Blacktop this kept the cost down as well as giving the film a great documentary look to it. The budget was a mere $775,000 rising to around a quarter million including marketing to date it has made more than a hundred and fifty times that (over $200million) making it one of the most profitable productions ever. Set in 1962 just ten years before it was made but a lot had changed in the world in that time. The Vietnam War was on the way and it was a time before the assignation of JFK, the Beatles, the moon landings and the summer of love. So much was going to happen some good some bad in the next few years for the characters of the film. Even if the events of the film don’t change their lives the decisions they make will affect their place in the world for years to come. The date is never mentioned in the film but the tag line was: “Where were you in ’62?”
For many the cars where the stars of the film, there where approximately 300 used including:
55 Chevy: Driven by Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). The car that races Milner at the end of the film was built by Richard Ruth for the film Two Lane Blacktop based on a ‘56 Chevy raced himself. It has a 454 big block V8 with tunnel ram intake and dual 4bbl carbs. It also has various custom made fibreglass panels including the trunk lid and hood. It has been suggested that it is capable of a quarter mile in less than 11 seconds. It also has a shiny black paintjob since its primer grey appearance in the earlier film. And don’t worry about the rollover and fire. That was a non running ’55 Bel Air 2-door hardtop that came from a salvage yard and retuned there after filming. The body style is slightly different to the main cars so a fake B pillar made of wood was installed.
32 Ford Coupe: Driven by John Milner (Paul Le Mat) the automotive star of the film. The car was purchased for the film, a few alterations were made including painting it a “Sort of a cross between piss yella’ and puke green”. There is little information on what the specification but it has bee suggested on several websites that it has a 1966 327 small block V8 from a corvette. As the film was set in 1962 this was never mentioned. It is just referred to as the “fastest thing in the Valley”
56 Ford T-Bird: Borrowed for the film and driven by the mysterious blond (Suzanne Summers).
51 Mercury Driven by The Pharaohs. This is my personal feverwort car in the film. It just looks stuning.
58 Chevy Impala: Driven by Steve (Ron Howard) borrowed by Terry for a lot of the film.
Citroen 2CV AZA: Driven by Curt (Richard Dreyfuss).
59 Paggio Vespa GS160: Ridden (in the loosest sense of the word) by Terry “Toad” (Charlie Martin Smith). Towards the beginning of the film when he crash into the building he really did lose control of the bike and crashed it, it wasn’t in the script but it was so in keeping with the character it made it into the film.
1961 Ford Galaxie: driven by the police in the famous scene where it loses its rear axel thanks to Curt and the Pharaohs.
The film was nominated for five Oscars; Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Candy Clark: Best Director George Lucas: Best Editing, Verna Fields & Marcia Lucas: Best Picture Francis Ford Coppola & Gary Kurtz (producers): Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced, George Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. Sadly it didn’t win any of them but did win two golden globes. Best Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy and Most Promising Newcomer – Male for Paul Le Mat.
So there are no existential themes or complex metaphors here, the film is just a fantastic slice of nostalgia brilliantly put together in a way that has never been surpassed. The closest any film has ever come to emulating it is Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused that interestingly deals with the other end on the same period in history. I can not think of any other film that has been so commercially successful but retains a devoted following normally reserved for a cult film. The reason for this is probably is that it is a film everyone can relate to. Even if we didn’t grow up in 1960’s California we were all young once and we all had to made decisions in life. Everyone will see something in the film that reminds them of their youth. If you don’t think it is George Lucas’ best film and you are under thirty watch it again in a few years and see if you have changed your mind. I am in my early thirties and although I have loved since I first saw it when I was in my teens, I get so much more out of it now, after all what do we have to be nostalgic about when we are teenagers?
For more information on the film visit the fan sites:
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