The most relatable picture in his entire filmography, American Graffiti offers an engaging riff on a formative period in George Lucas’ life, when being a kid on the verge of adulthood meant cruising for chicks in a great car on a cool California evening. The fact that Lucas once conceived and directed a story this full of believable characters makes it frustrating that so many of his latter-day projects lack recognizable humanity; it seems that once he departed for a galaxy far, far away, he never returned. Yet that frustration somehow deepens the resonance of American Graffiti, because just as the story captures a fleeting moment in the lives of its characters, the movie captures a fleeting moment in the life of its creator. Utilizing an innovative editing style in which brisk vignettes are interwoven to the accompaniment of a dense soundtrack comprising familiar vintage pop tunes, Lucas confounded his Universal Studios financiers but thrilled early-’70s moviegoers by conjuring the cinematic equivalent of switching the dial on a car radio. As soon as any given scene makes its statement, Lucas jumps to the next high point, repeating the adrenalized cycle until it’s time to call it a night.
Set in Lucas’ hometown of Modesto circa 1962, American Graffiti follows the adventures of four recent high school graduates trying to figure out the next steps in their lives. They interact with a constellation of friends and strangers during a hectic night of romance, sex, vandalism, and vehicular excess. Some of the characters and relationships have more impact than others, but the various threads mesh comfortably and amplify each other. For instance, the melodramatic saga of Steve (Ron Howard) and his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) resonates with the obsessive quest by Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) to find a mysterious dreamgirl (Suzanne Somers). Moody greaser John (Paul Le Mat) and tough-guy drag racer Bob (Harrison Ford) add danger, while precocious Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) and hapless Terry (Charles Martin Smith) add humor. With wall-to-wall tunes expressing the characters’ raging hormones, Lucas weaves a quilt of adolescent angst and teen longing that simultaneously debunks and romanticizes the historical moment immediately preceding John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s a testament to Lucas’ craft that audiences fell in love with the exuberant surface of the movie despite the gloom bubbling underneath. The picture’s success did remarkable things for nearly everyone involved, helping Howard land the lead in the blockbuster sitcom Happy Days (1974–1984) and giving Lucas the box-office mojo to make Star Wars (1977).
More American Graffiti is a very different type of film. Written and directed by Bill L. Norton under Lucas’ supervision, the picture explores what happened to several characters after the events of the first film. Howard, Le Mat, Smith, and Williams reprise their roles, and Ford makes a brief appearance. (Dreyfuss is notably absent.) A dark, experimental, and provocative examination of the tumultuous years spanning 1964 to 1967, More American Graffiti would have been nervy as a stand-alone film, so it’s outright ballsy as a major-studio sequel to a crowd-pleaser. Norton follows three storylines, giving each a distinctive look. Scenes with Howard and Williams are shot conventionally, accentuating the everyday misery of a couple drifting apart. Scenes with Smith’s character in Vietnam are shot on grainy 16mm with a boxy aspect ratio (even though the rest of the picture is widescreen). Trippiest of all are scenes with Candy Clark (whose character in the first picture was relatively minor); set in hippy-dippy San Francisco, these sequences use wild split-screen techniques. LeMat’s character appears in an extended flashback to which Norton frequently returns, like the chorus of a pop song. Tackling antiwar protests, draft dodgers, drug culture, women’s liberation, and other topics, the film is a too-deliberate survey of ’60s signifiers. That said, More American Graffiti has integrity to spare, bringing the shadows that hid beneath the first movie’s shiny surface to the foreground.
American Graffiti: RIGHT ON
More American Graffiti: FUNKY