Film Review: American Graffiti - 50 Year Anniversary
By Joseph Beyer | Sept. 2, 2023
The cinema event that caught my eye this month was the 50-year anniversary edition of the classic coming-of-age comedy American Graffiti, #62 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list of U.S. movies everyone should see. The film that launched George Lucas as a bold new director not only stands up now, but in some ways reveals itself as more relevant with age. It is being showcased across streaming services and VOD in celebration of the milestone.
Beginning with the sounds of Wolfman Jack on the radio followed by the hilarious reveal of Mel’s Drive-In (the film’s epicenter with an Anywhere, California, vibe actually shot north of San Francisco), the movie quickly showcases the art and wheels of a cruising culture through what Lucas called his “anthropological lens.”
Set in the early 1960s but feeling ultimately like a treatise on the ’50s, it’s a study of distinctly American dating rituals and an era with apparently no curfews. The idea no studio loved required Francis Ford Coppola lending his weight as a producer to get it made, saying “now go make a normal movie George, one people will like.”
The simple narrative itself takes place entirely on the last night before a pack of friends separates. They’re on the edge of change from teenagers to the mysterious dreams and freedoms of adulthood and possibly college. The concept was so “plain” that Universal Studios told Lucas it would never work. But it did, becoming a genuine hit even when it was released in 1973.
Featured here are tough guys, the bullied, dolls and gals, and characters with a social intelligence and sensitivity to emotions that might have been quasi-woke before its time. (Though there is some vernacular language that could still shock.) Most of all, American Graffiti features the acting intensity and remarkable talents of an ensemble of newcomers-turned-stars like Cindy Williams, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith, and Harrison Ford, among others.
The surprising conclusion I had revisiting American Graffiti was just how realistically it portrays teenage angst and sexual politics—mainly in backseats that test the limits of bodies and libidos.
Hormone-driven partners jump hotrods and hook up with new flames or exes in a constant swap of success and failure in a real-world version of Match.com. Given the age of the film, you might be shocked to see most female characters stand up for themselves, choose and use their boyfriends, or—when they want—ultimately discard them.
Testing manhood like the engines they literally and metaphorically rev, most of the men also surprisingly display alter egos of kindness and loyalty and express their own Iron John energy as newbies in the complexities of relationships. Yes, they discharge cherry bombs in the boys’ room, purchase liquor sheepishly while underage, and encounter the fears and thrills of taking risks at a moment when most of us remember feeling somewhat invincible—but they are also shy, unsure, and afraid, too.
Like a pre-Uber bromance, a Wizard of Oz where Wolfman Jack lives in a radio booth, or a love letter to a nostalgic idea of youth, American Graffiti is an interesting pick to watch right now, as it feels perfectly dated and familiar at the same time.
With amazing sound design that also chooses the power of silence over piercing Dolby effects, American Graffiti’s score and cinematography will haunt you with a masterful sense of motion and its layers of sonic and visual storytelling powers.
By the time a street race and a crash with remarkably few injuries starts the final act, you might feel a bit dizzy with all the tidy conclusions that come rapidly toward the finale. But if you let the ending linger, I think you’ll be rewarded with a sense of experiencing something special: a moment in time and a timeless story…maybe even the very first summer blockbuster.