Back when he made good movies, and just prior to leaving an indelible impression on the cinematic landscape with Star Wars, George Lucas co-wrote and directed a low-budget masterpiece called American Graffiti. An ensemble nostalgia film that takes place over the course of a single night in 1962, the movie, like all great films, can’t be tucked into a neat box, genre-wise. It manages to transcend genre and be all at once funny, sad, exhilarating, and touching (Yes, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused owes more than a little to this movie). Hit the jump for my review of American Graffiti on DVD.
The story, which focuses primarily on four characters (that of the standup citizen, the rebel, the nerd, the most badass racer on the Strip), is a seamless blend of vignettes all moving towards the sunrise. And as with any influential and brilliant work of art, success can’t be accredited to just one component. Here, it’s a confluence of elements. The lightning-in-a-bottle cast of Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Sommers and of course, Harrison Ford is unmatched. As is the soundtrack, which is populated with over forty rock-n-roll hits of the era. The music almost serves as an additional character; often underscoring the frustrations, emotions and dreams of the ensemble. It also helps that the voice of legendary renegade disc jockey Wolfman Jack (who later appears as himself in the film) MC’s the musical proceedings.
While the script blends characters and story at a vibrant pace, Lucas’ framing and composition are also solid. When he directed this movie, the 28 year-old filmmaker clearly understood the filmmaking medium and knew how to express emotions and dynamics through single shots (if only he had looked back at this film and comprehended where his head was when he made it before embarking on those Prequels).
The movie paints a portrait of an innocent, pre-Kennedy assassination America. But it manages to deliver its message subtly, without getting in the way of its plot or preaching. It’s not just the last time these kids will know innocence; the same applies to the country they live in.
The audio and visuals have been remastered, and the movie looks as clean as it’s ever been (of course, if this were the blu-ray version, I’m assuming it’d look even cleaner, but that’s a different review right there). The audio is a strong improvement (“Runaround Sue” has never sounded better), but the enhancements to the video aspect of the film are somewhat questionable. While much of the nighttime granniness, which always existed as part of the film has been removed, this may actually be a less-than-positive addition; a degree of this movie’s charm was its down-and-dirty palate. And that feels lost in the remastered images.
The supplementals are skeletal and comprised of two components. The “Making of” retrospective documentary is comprehensive, but can also be found on the 2005 DVD release of the movie. The new edition to the rerelease is an updated commentary by Lucas. The filmmaker is straightforward in talking about themes, concepts and origins for the film, but the commentary suffers from an inescapable monotony in his voice. At times, he comes across more like a dry professor than a director excited to discuss his work. That said, he does offer a few insights of note, chiefly focused on the movie’s themes, its physical production, and the day-to-day machinations of his process in getting it made.
A landmark of American cinema. With its soundtrack (one of the best dual disc soundtracks on the market), locations (Mel’s Drive-In!) and specific dialect (“What a bitchin’ babe”), American Graffiti encapsulates its era perfectly. But on a grander scale, it hits a truly universal note in being completely relatable to any teenager about to leave home for the first time, regardless of what era they were born in. But if you’ve got the 2005 DVD, there’s not a very strong argument to go out and buy this one.