American Graffiti (BluRay Review)

THE FILM

Before he became entranced with the medium of cinema George Lucas was obsessed with the world of cars. As a teen he was originally planning to be a mechanic and would hang out at garages and race hot rods with his gang of friends. After a car accident that nearly took his life, Lucas changed his focus and went to film school. Little did he know that years later his favorite pasttime/hobby would become a main inspiration for one of his most popular films.

Fresh off his debut feature, the bleak, futuristic sci-fi film THX-1138 (1971), George Lucas was inspired to write something more  “warm and fuzzy” for mainstream movie audiences by his mentor and friend Francis Ford Coppola. Lucas was especially interested in looking back at the early 60s when he was growing up. It was an era he missed, when cruising was popular and rock and roll was in its infancy. The story Lucas and his co-writers came up with for this project he called “American Graffiti” followed a small group of friends through their last night together in the Summer of ’62 before they embark on their future in the real world. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and best friend Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus) are both leaving for college, while Laurie (Cindy Williams) Steve’s girlfriend/Kurt’s younger sister must try to decide what her future will be with Steve. Meanwhile Steve’s dorky buddy Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) is, as usual, chasing the hamburger joint waitresses and being a general nuisance. Since he’ll be away at college, in a show of trust, Steve leaves Toad his car to take care of. Toad immediately hops for joy and decides to celebrate by cruising around town to show off his new ride and look for a cool chicky to hook up with. He soon finds one in Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) a cute little wig wearing airhead who has ‘been around’ with all the guys but is enchanted with Toad’s innocent, nerdy personality. Last but not least, straight out of a hot rod movie, Steve’s other good friend and local rebel without a cause John Milner (Paul LeMat) is looking for someone to race in his super tough yellow deuce coupe. The latest loudmouth on the dragging scene is Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) a cowboy hat wearing wiseass who plans to take Milner on as the local racing star. It’s not long before the two come wheel to wheel and get into a heated competition.

The movie essentially becomes a group of separate fun vignettes set to music as we follow the friends as they meet up with all kinds of interesting people and go on their own little adventures throughout the night.

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After many problems with its production and distribution, American Graffiti ultimately was George Lucas’ first big breakout hit at the box office. The film had two main elements that made it especially appealing to audiences: 1) the likeable characters who were very easy to relate to/fun to hang out with and 2) a fantastic rock and roll soundtrack which permeates almost every scene. It blasts out of car radios as the legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack‘s iconic voice cuts through the night air as he introduces songs and talks to callers. Like the hot rods zooming up and down the main strip, the music drives the movie, giving it a rhythm, and acts as a kind of greek chorus for the different subplots going on.

The choice of visual style for the movie created a more real life atmosphere with its documentary inspired filmmaking. Lucas got many ideas by bringing in friend Haskell Wexler who would be a visual consultant on the picture. The Technoscope lense chosen was instrumental, it gave the picture a look of a 16mm camera yet retained the widescreen aspect ratio. Many of the scenes were improvised and Lucas even used accidents caught during takes to make it seem all the more real as well. For instance, the introductory scene with Toad arriving on his scooter and crashing into the wall was one such goof that was kept in.

American Graffiti was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Candy Clark) and Best Editing.

Although it’s not often cited as much as the original, there was a sequel made called More American Graffiti (1979) which followed the original cast of characters into the late 60s and was set around the psychadelic hippie scene and Vietnam War. Fans will want to check it out because it’s actually an interesting film.

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POP CULTURE INFLUENCE

American Graffiti’s influence can be seen on many projects that came after it including the Happy Days TV series (also starring Ron Howard), the teenage gang film The Lords of Flatbush (1974) all the way to Richard Linklater’s 90s cult classic Dazed and Confused which is considered the American Graffiti for the 70s generation. Director David Fincher (The Social Network) also cited American Graffiti as an inspiration for his controversial film Fight Club (1999). Incidentally Fincher’s first professional work in cinema was on Lucas’ Return of The Jedi (1983).

FURIOUS FILM GEEK TRIVIA:

The name John Milner is a homage to George Lucas’ friend Director John Milius.

The B-film Dementia 13 can be seen on local movie theater marquee as a homage to it’s director, Lucas’ friend/mentor/producer Francis Ford Coppola.

George Lucas’ first film THX-1138 was not as widely known at the time he made American Graffiti so to make sure it was remembered he gave John Milner’s license plate number: THX-138.

The characters Terry The Toad, John Milner and Curt Henderson represent George Lucas at different stages of his teenage years.

BLU RAY REVIEW

Picture: Presented in 1080p High Definition Widescreen (2:35:1) / Special Features presented in 1080p and 480p. The film transfer brings the nighttime atmosphere to a brilliant clarity. Blu Ray collectors will be very pleased with the restoration which preserves the film’s best elements but defines the picture beautifully. The colors are enhanced making the neon jukebox inspired visual palette pop right off the screen.

Audio: English HD DTS Master Audio 2.0 Surround Sound/Special Features English DTS HD DTS Audio 2.0 / DTS Express 2.0. Dialogue comes through clearer than it ever has. The classic rock n roll soundtrack recreates an atmosphere that will make you feel like you’re hanging out in the early 60s with some friends.

U-Control Special Features

Video in Video Commentary: This is the coolest interactive feature as viewers can see/listen to George Lucas discuss the film on camera as it plays simultaneously. Longtime fans will really enjoy it!

Music: As the film plays you can see information about each song on the soundtrack.

Extras

– The Making of American Graffiti Documentary: This in depth feature goes behind the scenes and moves from the casting to the shooting and into post-production. Lots of very humorous tales from the cast about how they got their roles, offscreen antics and the no holds guerilla style filmmaking they had to endure. Interviews with Writer-Director George Lucas, Writers Willard Huyk and Gloria Katz. Actors Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Dreyfus, Harrison Ford, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Paul LeMat and Cinematographer Haskell Wexler and Sound Editor Walter Murch.

Screen Tests: See the cast try out for their roles in these rarely seen sequences.

Theatrical Trailer

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Peter

Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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  1. October 17, 2011

    […] American Graffiti which came out 10 years earlier, Christine’s soundtrack is a variety of classics featuring […]

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