A few years before his “Star Wars” redefined the Hollywood blockbuster, George Lucas directed one of the great gems of “indie” cinema. Although “American Graffiti” (1973) was funded by Universal, Lucas was given almost complete creative control in exchange for making the picture on a micro-budget.
Lucas took full advantage. With its unusual narrative structure, its innovative shooting techniques and its groundbreaking use of sound, “American Graffiti” has a pure, defiant independent spirit.
Lucas was inspired to make the film by the lost car “cruising” culture he grew up with in Modesto, California. Although only a decade earlier, this culture had vanished during the tumultuous 1960s. Set on the last night of summer vacation in 1962, the movie follows the intersecting stories of four teenagers on a pivotal night in their lives.
This unusual narrative structure was almost unprecedented in 1973. And since much of the action takes place in moving cars, the film gives a sense of constant motion – perfectly capturing the cruising culture Lucas had hoped to bring to life. This movement makes the multiple story lines seem even more disjointed, random and chaotic.
To save time and money, Lucas took the unusual step of shooting with two cameras simultaneously. In a scene between characters in two cars, he’d mount a camera in each vehicle and roll both. This not only cut shooting time in half, but it also gave the acting an unforced energy and spontaneity. Lucas sometimes preferred his actors’ “mistakes,” using unplanned moments in place of scripted ones. He often confounded his actors by moving on to the next shot without ever getting a “correct” take of what had been planned.
Another Lucas innovation was the use of wall-to-wall songs in place of a traditional film score. The soundtrack is essentially a radio show by legendary D.J. Wolfman Jack, who introduces and plays early rock and roll tracks from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The songs sometimes cut out entirely, and the relative silence is used to great dramatic effect.
But for all its innovation and somewhat disorienting structure, “American Graffiti” is a very human story. Lucas portrays his characters with tenderness and compassion. They are flawed, delusional, quirky, hilarious and very relatable. Here, Lucas had great help from a talented young cast of unknown actors.
The film introduced audiences to soon-to-be-huge stars like Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers and a 12-year old Mackenzie Phillips. And although set in 1962, it helped kick start a 1950s nostalgia movement that soon made a mega-hit out of TV sitcom “Happy Days.”
“American Graffiti” has a secure place in film history as the movie that made “Star Wars” possible. It’s one of the most successful films in history, earning $140 million after being made for less than $800,000. This commercial success turned George Lucas into a superstar filmmaker, giving him the clout to bring his “Star Wars” franchise to the screen.
But “American Graffiti” is a great film in its own right, and represents the most heartfelt and personal statement to date by the superstar filmmaker.