FILM (1973)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2011, 12:00am


American Graffiti
Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat
Director: George Lucas

The summer of 1962 was a time of unparalleled optimism in the US. The young and charismatic president John F. Kennedy was in office. The White House had announced the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Economic growth was surging. And the popular music of the time was infectiously sunny.

It was a great time to be a teenager, as American Graffiti's two - now legendary - filmmakers were during that year. Their names were Francis Ford Coppola, the film's producer, and writer/director George Lucas, who would go on to unleash Star Wars and its sequels.

American Graffiti is a joyous and highly entertaining night in the company of a bunch of likeable Californians on the cusp of adulthood, in a small town modelled on Modesto (near San Francisco), where Lucas grew up. The film's multiple intersecting narratives, set over the course of one summer night, make for a highly engaging film.

Moreover, the use of music of the era - heard by the characters in the film as well as the viewer - adds considerably to the sense of time and place. Assorted tracks by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Booker T & the MGs and a slew of other early 1960s legends, halped give American Graffiti enduring appeal. The film rocks - but innocently and joyfully. And all the parts add up to one of the greatest feel-good films ever.

On its 1973 release, it established the template for the coming-of-age film, and has been imitated endlessly since. The four leads are nice guy Steve Bolander (played by a fresh-faced Ron Howard, pictured far right), tough guy John Milner (Paul Le Mat), awkward nerd Terry Fields (brilliantly played by Charles Martin Smith) and the astute Curt Henderson, played by another Hollywood legend, Richard Dreyfuss (right, centre). It's surprising to see both Howard and Dreyfuss here as such young men (aged 19 and 26 respectively).

The film's ever-present motif is the automobile, and the characters' wheels play a vital role in their lives. Cars are status symbols, means to assert authority, tokens of the bravado of youth, and a conduit to getting the chicks.

Towards the end of the film, some shadows appear as a counterpoint to all the sunniness. As a measure of social commentary and cynicism creep in, we begin to get a sense of the dying mythology of West Coast American ideals. And when the lyrics to the Beach Boys' We've Been Having Fun All Summer Long sound over the final credits, one senses the melancholia of both the summer and the fun slipping away. But it was a hell of a good time while it lasted.

Lucas' nostalgia-tripping (at least for baby boomers) masterpiece is now almost beyond criticism. A superb work of popular art, it established a new narrative style, with locale becoming as important as storyline.

The happiness didn't last. In the October of that memorable year, the Cuban missile crisis unfolded and spooked the world. Three years later, Uncle Sam blundered into Vietnam, the Watts riots erupted in Los Angeles, and then the dark hurricane of the counter-culture swirled over the US until the oil crisis of 1973, when this gem came out - at which time America truly wanted to revisit the good old days.