When American Graffiti, George Lucas’s sophomore feature directorial outing, was released in 1973, the initial reviews for the film, which is set in and around Lucas’s hometown of Modesto, California, in 1962, were achingly nostalgic, as if the concussive shocks that robbed America of its innocence between 1962 and 1973, from the escalation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination to Charles Manson and Watergate, had made the intervening period seem like an eternity.
However, while the decision to set American Graffiti within such a fateful period in time might seem to have been a calculation on Lucas’s part, to allow the film’s teenage characters to enjoy one last night of freedom and innocence before they have to face the enduring nightmare of the JFK assassination, the fact is that the film’s time period reflects Lucas’s own coming-of-age experience, as Lucas graduated from Modesto’s Thomas Downey High School in 1962, approximately fifteen years before the release of Lucas’s third feature directorial outing, Star Wars, which, of course, revolutionized entertainment and pop culture perhaps more than any other film in history.
Indeed, if the 1962 world of American Graffiti seemed distant in 1973, it certainly now seems as incomparably remote as the Star Wars universe.
One More Night
While the “galaxy far, far away” tagline that heralded the arrival of Star Wars in 1977 certainly applies to the now alien-seeming sights and sounds of American Graffiti, American Graffiti nonetheless exudes timeless appeal, as the film documents a point in the lives of its teenage characters that anyone who has ever been a teenager and navigated the stormy passage of high school can recognize with great emotion and yearning.
American Graffiti, which takes place almost entirely over the course of one night, follows a group of teenagers, recent high school graduates, who spend their last night of summer vacation contemplating the awkward but unavoidable transition to adulthood, as indeed the film’s two main characters, Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), are supposed to leave their sleepy hometown of Modesto, California, the following morning to go to college.
Indeed, amidst the film’s divergent, freewheeling structure, which clearly provided the inspiration for Richard Linklater’s 1993 period coming-of-age comedy film Dazed and Confused, the inherent conflict and sadness that often accompanies the transition from adolescence to adulthood, primarily over the summer after high school graduation, is embodied in the mournful attitude of Curt, who, early in the film, expresses confusion regarding his future and misgivings about leaving Modesto for college in the morning, to the dismay of best friend Steve, who can’t understand why Curt, or anyone, would want to stay in Modesto.
Moreover, while the transition between the end of high school and the beginning of supposed adulthood represents a universal rite-of-passage experience, American Graffiti is uniquely timeless in terms of how acutely aware the film’s teenage characters seem to be of the fact that they will remember their last few hours of freedom and innocence for the rest of their lives.
The Age of Innocence
Of course, one of the most poignant symbols of innocence in American Graffiti is the film’s choice of period music, which plays through a local radio station and mythical-seeming disc jockey Wolfman Jack throughout the film, virtually from beginning to end and also serves to influence the attitudes and behavior of the film’s teenage characters.
While eerily simple songs like “At the Hop,” “Runaway,” and “16 Candles” reflect the relative innocence of 1962 by showing how blissfully unaware the film’s teenage characters are of the loss of innocence that took place in America in the ensuing decade, the music of American Graffiti also serves to highlight how angry and cynical and excessive music, much like America as a whole, had become by 1973.
Moreover, innocence in American Graffiti is reflected in the simplicity of the choices that are made available to the film’s teenage characters, who, as the film opens, are faced with the limited options of either going to college or staying in their hometown and finding a job and maybe cruising Main Street and listening to the radio, as if nothing has changed.
George Lucas: Filmmaker
Since George Lucas’s feature directorial debut, the visionary 1971 science-fiction film THX 1138, was a commercial failure, it’s entirely possible that if American Graffiti, which grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office and received Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations, had also been a commercial failure, Star Wars wouldn’t have been made or at least not in its present form.
Indeed, as Lucas essentially ceased directing after the release of Star Wars in 1977 in favor of introducing cinematic technological breakthroughs and masterminding the Indiana Jones film series and the immediate Star Wars sequel films The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, American Graffiti essentially marked the end of Lucas’s feature directing career, at least in terms of the character-based, observational, sociological approach that Lucas brought to American Graffiti, which is one of the greatest of all American films.
Moreover, if Star Wars hadn’t been made, or if Star Wars had been a commercial failure, it’s likely that Lucas would have continued, in the vein of American Graffiti, to make perceptive, serious, thoughtful films that explored various aspects of American culture and human behavior.
Indeed, as American Graffiti, more than fifty years after its release, continues to endure as an influential and uniquely relatable document of bittersweet nostalgia and historical fiction, it’s a shame that the blockbuster success of Star Wars seemingly prevented Lucas from continuing to move in this direction as a filmmaker, which is one of the few criticisms that can be made of what is undoubtedly the most popular and culturally significant mythology in the history of cinema and fiction.