"Where were you in '62?" asks the trailer for American Graffiti. In 1962 I was in diapers. The movie came out in 1973, and at the time I thought that it was one of the most amazing movies I had seen. I was 13.
George Lucas wanted to document a particular time in American history, before the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam war, drugs, free love, and the invasion of British Rock 'n Roll. Only in America, and only during this particular time, there was this mating ritual of cruising in automobiles trying to meet the opposite sex. I suspect that this was more common in California than, say, the midwest. Cruising came back somewhat after the movie was released.
Lucas said that he wasted four years of his life cruising the streets of Modesto California, before going off to college. He wanted to explore the theme of being afraid of change, and how that is one of the things that holds people back from success. He also wanted to explore the theme of how we feel like we have a relationship with disk jockey's, because we listen to them so much, or used to many decades ago, so we think of them as our friends, when in reality they are complete strangers.
American Graffiti is intended as a musical. Popular music of the late 50's and early 60's permeates the film. Particular songs seem to accentuate various plot points and moods of the movie. This was the first movie to really do this, so at the time the film could be considered experimental. The music in the movie seems to come from everywhere. People are listening to it on their car radios, but even people walking down the street seem to hear it from offscreen sources.
The world that these characters live in seems very artificial, and as it turns out, very fleeting. The world changed drastically in short order, which is why George Lucas wanted to make a film capturing that particular time period.
The film succeeds brilliantly in capturing all the themes that Lucas wanted to show. It is sort of a history lesson, which the film also does brilliantly. The acting, by many young actors who would later become famous, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, is also brilliant. The plot meanders, which is probably intentional because the main characters are sort of meandering through life trying to decide what to do next. So the film seems less entertaining to me now, and far less relevant than it did four decades ago, but noteworthy for its accomplishments.
My Rating: B+
Roger Ebert gave the movie * * * *
The movie inspired the TV series Happy Days, which in turn inspired the spin-offs Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy, the latter of which fired up the career of Robin Williams. Likewise, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, and Harrison Ford might not have been as famous were it not for this film. It was because George Lucas had worked with Harrison Ford on American Graffiti that Ford was chosen for the parts of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. And it was only because American Graffiti was such a big hit that Lucas was able to do his next big project, which was Star Wars.