"American Graffiti"

From the days before George Lucas second-guessed himself, a treasure of ingenious '70s filmmaking that uses rock 'n' roll like a Greek chorus with a beat.

Published October 13, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"American Graffiti"
Directed by George Lucas
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul LeMat, Charlie Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack
Universal; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, including screen tests and interviews with Lucas, producer Francis Ford Coppola and the cast and crew; production notes; trailer

George Lucas' memories of growing up with carhops, cruising, hot rods and hoods produced a film that sent the whole country into an early-'60s flashback. Its in-and-out vignette style and nonstop rock-oldies soundtrack quickly became standard issue for teen movies. Some of Lucas' characters -- the nerd (Charlie Martin Smith), the deceptively "dumb" blond (Candy Clark), the hot rodder (Paul LeMat) -- were stock figures even in 1962, the year in which the story takes place. But Lucas reanimates the clichis, using them to externalize and flesh out the cruising mind-set of his teen era. He gets at the archetypal bonds and tensions between eternal high school types like the brainy semioutsider (Richard Dreyfuss) and the sharp yet inertia-prone class prez ("Ronny" Howard). And the rock 'n' roll moviemaking rhythms give "Graffiti" a souped-up engine all its own. This 1973 movie recaptured the idea of teen years' being fun -- a notion that has since gotten way out of hand.

The uncanny casting, including Harrison Ford as LeMat's nemesis and Suzanne Somers as Dreyfuss' dream girl, doubly ensures this film's place in history. By now, it too is a nostalgic memory -- not just for the supposedly innocent time of 1962 but also for the seat-of-the-pants innovations of early-'70s moviemaking. One reason to buy the DVD is that its Dolby Digital audio allows you to appreciate how Walter Murch's sound montages awoke a generation on the rise to the power of the soundtrack. He uses classic rock 'n' roll in ways it had never been used before. It becomes the natural sound of a small-town California night -- more natural than crickets or coyotes. Murch and Lucas don't just exploit rock to set a mood; they use it to fix the movie's meanings in the viewer's mind, like a Greek chorus with a beat. At times, the sound alone makes you feel like you're in the middle of a giant rainbow-colored jukebox.

But the filmmakers also know how to blow away that aural mist to exploit silence and sound effects -- usually in places where conventional movies would use a musical score to pound home emotional tension or crises in the plot. When Dreyfuss has to sneak a hook onto the undercarriage of a police car to prove himself to a gang known as the Pharaohs, the rock 'n' roll subsides. All you hear is the nerve-rattling sound of an approaching train. A couple of years before, the sound of an unseen train had worked for Michael Corleone's murder of a rival mobster and a crooked cop in "The Godfather." In a different manner and context, it works just as brilliantly here.

The DVD also contains a terrific "making of" documentary. It's notable not just for never-before-seen, improvisational screen tests, and for interviews with Lucas and Coppola and with actors from Dreyfuss and Howard to Phillips and Ford, but also for enlightening comments from less-known luminaries like casting director Fred Roos. You have to be in awe of Roos' ability and appetite for spotting talent: He found Mackenzie Phillips at the Troubadour rock club in Los Angeles and Kathleen Quinlan through the drama club at Mount Tamalpais High School in Marin County, Calif.

As quoted in the useful liner notes, cinematographer Haskell Wexler says that what was groundbreaking for him was that "we were able to use documentary techniques, we were able to use smaller equipment, we were able to work in a simpler way and still have what ultimately was on the screen be interesting and good." That seize-the-day spirit infected everyone on the set. These days, Lucas is known for erasing errors digitally (he even digitally altered one shot of Mel's Drive-In for this DVD). But what makes this movie click, as "The Making of 'American Graffiti'" shows, is the edge the actors got from knowing that Lucas was capturing their most spontaneous reactions, including their stumbles and "mistakes."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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