Four California teenagers get a final, nostalgic glimpse of innocence before facing college and life in general in 1962 in this spot-on portrait of American youth culture shown through the experiences of some high school seniors.
On the eve of leaving for college or military service, the quartet spend a memorable night of chasing girls, racing cars, taking dares, harassing the cops, and hanging out.
The film opens at Mel’s Drive-In Burger City, the social centre for the town’s teenagers somewhere in the sun-drenched Central Valley of California.
It tells the story of the last night of the summer vacation, the last night the four main characters – Steve, Curt, Terry and John – will be together before Steve and Curt fly east to college the next morning.
Steve wants to break up with Laurie, his devoted high school sweetheart and pursue new experiences away from home. Curt is hesitant about going away to school and leaving the comfortable, familiar surroundings of family and friends.
John tries to maintain his “too cool for school” image as a hip guy, but can’t seem to shake a nagging awareness that life is somehow passing him by. Finally, there’s Terry, the nerdy wannabe trying to fit in but who still manages to screw up.
The film follows their adventures from dusk to dawn: the girls they meet, the local school gym hop, cruisin’ the streets in and out of Mel’s, terrorising the police, making out on the river bank to the sounds of Wolfman Jack‘s XERB radio show (pictured above), duelling on deserted dawn-lit country roads between John’ Chevy-powered Ford deuce coupe and a very mean ’55 Chevy, until – finally – each goes his separate way at the airport the next morning.
American Graffiti is a perceptive account of this period – the optimistic Kennedy era of post-war permissiveness before the final fall from innocence of the decade that followed.
The film greatly enhanced the career of director George Lucas and cast members Ron Howard and Cindy Williams. You also should spot Harrison Ford and Suzanne Somers.
As if such good times, beautifully filmed, were not enough, Lucas also achieved outstanding life-like performances from his young cast – the boys, Ron Howard (Steve), Richard Dreyfuss (Curt), Charlie Martin-Smith (Terry), Paul Le Mat (John); and the girls, Cindy Williams (Laurie), Candy Clark (Debbie), and McKenzie Phillips (Carol) – who together perfectly engineer the common empathy and changing moods of youthful friendship.
There’s very little plot, but this landmark film sparkles with nostalgic atmosphere and hilarious dialogue.
As a constant backdrop, the music plays a great part in setting the mood of the film; ranging from Bill Haley‘s classic opener Rock Around The Clock (almost 20 years after it opened Blackboard Jungle), to The Beach Boys‘ All Summer Long at the close.
Although technically dazzling, the sequel More American Graffiti (1979) lacked the unity of style and dedication of purpose that made the original movie so memorable.
Paul Le Mat
Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields
Charlie Martin Smith
XERB Disc Jockey
Blonde in T-Bird
Manuel Padilla Jr
Lynne Marie Stewart
Bob Falfa’s Girl