Too often director George Lucas's accomplishments are limited to those of the "Star Wars" franchise. People forget his professional career began with a dark, artsy film called "THX 1138" starring Robert Duval. Even with the success and popularity of the "Star Wars" films, Lucas's biggest accomplishment might be a little movie he made with a bunch of unknown actors in 1973 called "American Graffiti".
"Where We You in '62?" was the tagline for "Graffiti", a film that explored the culture of cruising in the early '60s when all a person needed was tank full of gas and great tunes to have a good time.
Drawing on his own adventures in his adolescence, Lucas wrote the script for "Graffiti" on a dare from friend and fellow director Francis Ford Coppola to write something "light" after "THX 1138". His debut film even makes an appearance as the main hot rod driven by John Milner (Paul Le Mat) license plate reads "THX138".
"Graffiti" takes place over the course of one night as two friends, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard), ready themselves to head off to college and leave behind their lives in their hometown. There's drag racing, guys chasing girls, great music and a sense of innocence we all feel when we recall out high school days.
Curt and Steve's story is woven in with stories involving Milner and Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith) as the four guys navigate a seemingly typical night in their hometown. "Graffiti" marked one of the first times multiple storylines took place at the same time throughout a movie. Instead of focusing on one character at a time, multiple characters would be on their "quest" during the same scene.
Another first for "Graffiti" was the use of popular music as a soundtrack. In fact music is so important to the film, it should be considered a character in its own right. Plus the film uses the infamous Wolfman Jack essentially as the narrator of the kid's stories, using music instead of words to tell their story.
The film features what would be top Hollywood talent. Dreyfuss, Howard and Harrison Ford are just a few names that jump off the page. Remember, this was before Dreyfuss won an Oscar for "The Goodbye Girl", before Howard was Richie Cunningham and before Ford was Han Solo. Lucas saw the talent, took a chance and it paid off big time.
"Graffiti" was made for $777,000, but the studio disliked it so much following a test screening there was talk of releasing it as a movie of the week. Luckily for Lucas and Universal Pictures, they chose to send it to the theaters where it went on to become the most profitable film of all time at its release and still remains in the top 10.
The film was recently released on Blu-ray and it's long overdue. In addition to the film, the disc includes "The Making of American Graffiti" documentary, screen tests and theatrical trailer, which were on the DVD version of the film. The new features on the Blu-ray are two new options using the U-Control feature.
There's a song identifier, but the gem of the new features is a video commentary by Lucas himself. Lucas gives some great insight into the movie and my only complaint is that he looks to his left as he talks to someone off screen. It's still great to hear him talk about the hijinks his young cast got themselves into during production.
Final Cut: It's no wonder "American Graffiti" was deemed a film of cultural significance by the Library of Congress. The story elements are timeless and this film shows that Lucas is a much more gifted filmmaker than most people give him credit for.
5 out of 5 Stars
American Graffiti (1973)
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, Wolfman Jack
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck