Movie Magazine International

American Graffiti

USA - 1973

Movie Review By Casey McCabe

It was always a stupid thing to do. An overt waste of fossil fuel and a public admission that you had nothing better to do than drive around in circles. But the beauty of cruising main street on a hot summer night was the promise that something sexy, dangerous or just slightly different from the last pass might be waiting around the next corner.

It was also about being a teenager in America. About the automobile as temporary freedom. About basic mammalian mating rituals. And not incidentally, about the music on your radio. Cruising was an activity designed to manufacture nostalgia. And it was an unusually hot recent night that tripped my nostalgia trigger. I was cruising in my Cabernet red four cylinder, five on the floor ‘95 VW Jetta, NPR blasting from the radio, headed for the all-night Walgreens to buy Huggies disposable diapers for my baby, when I decided to pop in the video store and pick up the best summer cruising movie ever made, "American Graffiti."

The young director George Lucas made the film straight from the heart using his personal recollections of growing up in Modesto, California. And he put a lot of writing on the wall in "American Graffiti." As John Milner bemoans from the throne of his ‘32 Ford Coupe, the Beach Boys on the radio sound suspiciously like the beginning of the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Things will never be the same. But they never are, are they? And in the course of a single night, the last night of summer, a group of recent high school grads make the little choices that will affect the rest of their lives.

Warm, funny and jam-packed with memorable characters, scenes and music, "American Graffiti "was a huge crowd pleasing success. The 1973 film, set in 1962, went on to inspire a ‘50 craze that lasted well into the ‘70s. Now in a fresh millennium we're free to look back on "American Graffiti" for what it is: a timeless piece of storytelling. While the film is often remembered for a fetching ensemble that included a shockingly young Richard Dryefuss and Harrison Ford, you might have forgotten how brilliantly Lucas and screenwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck spun the intersecting storylines. "American Graffiti" was also one of the first films to enlist a compilation soundtrack. But while that technique has evolved to become a craven marketing tool ancillary to the movie, in "American Graffiti" the music permeates the airwaves as a living, breathing character. And in choosing the name “American Graffiti” as opposed to a title that might get slapped on the typical teen comedy, like “One Wild Night” Lucas acknowledges that he was after something bigger. Like his later films, "American Graffiti" was about myths and legends. Luke Skywalker seeking out Yoda has nothing on Curt Henderson's pilgrimage to a backwater radio station in search of Wolfman Jack. Yes, George Lucas would go on to do bigger things. I'm just not convinced he's done better.

There's a reason why some films, like some cars, are considered classics. “American Graffiti” earned its wheels. And if you haven't seen it for awhile, it's definitely worth another spin.

© 2001 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 06/01

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