There is a fascinating push-pull friction going on in American Graffiti (1973) between George Lucas the anthropologist with the use of long lenses and takes observing his subjects and Lucas the autobiographer with his close-ups on the compelling dramatic moments of his characters going through events either he experienced or people he knew. The film is at times nostalgic for this bygone era and at other times chronicling it from a distance, which may explain why it has aged surprisingly well as a time capsule of that time period and of Lucas as an artist when he made it, before he would create a franchise empire that would overshadow everything else he has done.
The film follows four young men and the women in their lives on the last night of summer vacation in 1962. We are introduced to the first three in a long shot arriving in their respective vehicles at a local diner in Modesto, California. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is deciding whether or not to college on the east coast. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is also going off to school and can’t believe that his friend is having doubts, pointing out that this is finally their chance to escape their dead-end town and avoid ending up like John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the local drag racer that never grew up and has a reputation for having the fastest car. Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) is entrusted with Steve’s ’58 Chevy Impala while he’s away at school and spends the night trying to get laid.
Curt, Steve and his girlfriend Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) start the night off by going to the freshman hop at their high school to remember all of “the good times” as Curt puts it, which sets John off: “I ain’t going off to some goddamn fancy college. I’m staying here right here! Having fun, as usual.” This hints at the trouble he won’t say but we know. He feels left behind while they go off to college. He wants things to stay the same; later complaining that rock ‘n’ roll has gone downhill since Buddy Holly died.
The characters soon go their separate ways and Lucas the anthropologist cuts to a montage of cars cruising up and down the main street of the town. This was a nightly ritual that began back in the 1950s and continued on into 1960s and beyond – teenagers would go riding in their cars making fun of each other, getting into trouble and picking each other up. We see John in his element for this is where he feels most comfortable. He’s the king of the strip. All the while, Lucas has music playing with famed radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack’s colorful banter between songs. The music acts as a Greek chorus, complimenting and commenting on what we are seeing.
The guys’ lives are complicated by the women they are either involved with or encounter over the course of the night. With John, it’s when he agrees to pick-up Carol Morrison (Mackenzie Phillips), a young girl and not a beautiful woman as he was led to believe. Curt spots a mysterious striking blonde woman (Suzanna Sommers) in a car mouthing what he believes are the words, “I love you,” and spends the rest of the film trying to find her. Steve and Laurie start off by agreeing to see other people while they’re away at college but that quickly goes south when they get into a fight at the dance. This tension flares and simmers over the course of the night. Finally, Terry picks up a girl named Debbie (Candy Clark) off the street and they go through a series of misadventures.
The split personalities of Lucas the documentarian and the autobiographer are most apparent early on during the depiction of the freshman sock hop that Curt, Steve and Laurie attend, which is much more interesting than the melodrama that erupts between the latter couple. Lucas is a depicting a ritual from a bygone era that he actually experienced, which gives the sequence an air of authenticity. Once again, Lucas’ documentarian side comes to the foreground as he meticulously recreates this dance right down to the band Herby and the Heartbeats (Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids) playing the music and the dance moves of the kids. Lucas the self-mythologizer takes over when we see Curt wandering the empty, darkened halls of the high school. He ends up talking to a teacher (Terry McGovern) chaperoning the dance and asking him about his college experience. He only lasted a semester before going home after deciding he wasn’t “the competitive type.” This only feeds into Curt’s doubts.
Of the four main characters Curt and John are the most interesting, even getting the film’s most poignant moments. Steve is your typical all-American class president type and Terry is a dweeb that just wants to get laid. Curt, in comparison, starts off with the dilemma of going to college or staying put, then becomes obsessed with a blonde woman in a car and this leads him to being shanghaied by local greaser gang The Pharaohs who force him to pull a series of pranks as a form of initiation. Richard Dreyfuss is charming and funny in the role, especially how he interacts with others, using humor to both deflect insults and keep himself out of trouble as we see with his misadventures with The Pharaohs.
Curt’s brief stint as a juvenile delinquent is both amusing and a bit harrowing as The Pharaohs put him in danger on two separate occasions but he is able to use his affable personality to get out of these sticky situations. Dreyfuss plays well off of Bo Hopkins’ genial yet menacing greaser. There’s always the implied threat of violence hanging over them but Curt manages to pull off the tasks he’s given and survive the night.
John starts off as a typical hot rodder interested only in cars and picking up women but the more time he spends with Carol his true character emerges. Initially, they have an antagonistic relationship, as he’s embarrassed to be seen with this young kid, afraid it will damage his reputation. She feels like no one likes her, not her older sister Judy who dumped her with John or this grease monkey who is trying to get rid of her. Mackenzie Phillips does an excellent job of showing that Carol is more than an annoying brat. She wants to hang out with the older kids and be taken seriously.
They take a walk through a junkyard and John points out a few cars and their histories, such as the people that died in them. He’s managed to avoid that fate so far and stay the fastest guy on the strip. It is a quiet, poignant moment between these two characters where they put their differences aside. Paul Le Mat is excellent in this scene as John lets his cool façade down for a few minutes and shows a vulnerable side to Carol. In their next scene together, he helps her terrorize a car of girls that threw a water balloon at her. It is an important bonding experience for them as it is no longer two of them sniping at each other but them working together against a common foe. Their night ends on a sweet note as he finally drops her off at her house and gives her a part from his car – a little memento of their night together. It means the world to her as she runs off into the house while he heads off into the night with a wry smile.
Curt’s payoff comes when, in a last ditch Hail Mary to get in touch with the mysterious blonde, he goes to the local radio station to get a dedication played in the hopes she’ll contact him. He meets the night D.J. who doesn’t claim to be the mythological Wolfman but promises to relay the dedication to the man. As Curt leaves the station he looks back and sees the D.J. adopt the Wolfman’s distinctive voice and smiles with the knowledge that few others have.
American Graffiti heads towards its exciting climactic showdown between John and Bob Falfa (played to cocky perfection by Harrison Ford), an unknown drag racer in a black ’55 Chevy One-Fifty Coupe who has been looking for him all night. It’s dawn when the two head out of town to race. John has been dreading this moment, as he knows Falfa’s car is faster than his, thanks to a brief encounter earlier that night, but the would-be challenger crashes his car. Terry gushes about John’s win and in a rare moment of candor among his friends, tells him that he would’ve lost. Terry won’t hear it and hypes him and his car. John goes along with it, snapping back into “character” as it were. After all, being the top hot rodder is all he has in life and he knows it. In that moment, he comes to terms with it.
One can’t stress the importance of music in this film enough. It is everywhere. The first thing we hear is a radio being tuned to a station with the characters listening to it or having it play in the background throughout the film with the legendary Wolfman Jack commenting occasionally between songs. Music is often used to establish a mood and take us back to the time period as evident early on when “Sixteen Candles” plays over a shot of cars parked at Mel’s Diner, or showing cars cruising up and down the main drag to “Runaway” by Del Shannon as Lucas the anthropologist observes these people in their natural habitat, chronicling their nightly rituals.
For all the nostalgia that this film evokes people often forget the darker elements that gradually appear towards the end as Laurie is almost killed in a car accident. Lucas delivers the most powerful, emotional gut punch at the end with an epilogue that bluntly states the death of one of the main characters and another MIA in Vietnam. In an incredible example of tonal whiplash, the Beach Boys’ cheery “All Summer Long” plays over the credits ending things on a bittersweet note.
With every passing year there are fewer people that can answer the American Graffiti poster’s tag line question, “Where were you in ’62?” Lucas takes us back to a more innocent time when John F. Kennedy was still President of the United States and before a series of political assassinations, coupled with the Vietnam War, divided the country. We have this knowledge and are aware that these characters are on the cusp of all of this happening but are currently blissfully unaware. The farther we get away from the year that the film is set and the less people still alive who can remember it, American Graffiti becomes less of a nostalgia piece and more of a snapshot of a certain time and place, capturing Lucas as a young man before his life became complicated with filmmaking and empire building.