George Lucas is a master at building worlds. The one that comes to mind is far, far away but four years before Tatooine, Lucas built a planet of a different sort. It was full of deadly moving vehicles, sweeping music, and young men struggling to find their way. If that sounds like Star Wars, that’s because it is; American Graffiti is an American classic. It also contains the blueprint for the themes and characters that would pervade Lucas’ famous space trilogy.
American Graffiti is a coming-of-age story where time and place play leading roles. Set in his hometown of Modesto, California, 1962, the film is a vivid recreation a lost time in the director’s life. It’s a time when Cokes cost ten cents, boys had cooties and the main event on a Friday night was a sock hop. High school grads Curt, Steve, John and Terry are on the brink of adulthood. The film focuses on their last night of freedom and they spend cruising, flirting with girls, and orbiting Mel’s, the all-night diner that serves as the center of their universe.
Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is the proto-Luke Skywalker; the mythic hero, uncertain of his place in the world. He’s undecided about whether to go to school or stay in Modesto and the dilemma is exacerbated when he spots a mysterious blonde who mouths “I love you” and pulls off in a ’56 T-Bird. He spends most of the film tracking her down, getting mixed up with a band of punks called The Pharaohs and searching for Wolfman Jack, the famous radio DJ who provides the soundtrack of the film. Like Skywalker, Curt battles monsters (The Pharaohs), receives guidance from a Yoda-like elder (Wolfman Jack) and in the end, leaves home for an untold quest, sans lightsabers.
John Milner (Paul Me Mat) is the James Dead lookalike. He folds his cigarettes into the sleeve of his undershirt and rarely leaves the driver’s seat of his yellow Deuce Coup. With his cynicism and need for speed, Milner is the ancestor of Hans Solo. He’s also forced to drive around with Carol (Mackenzie Philips), a 12 year-old who wants to stay out with the big kids: “I’m not hitting the rack ‘til I get a little action.” She’s spunky and eager to hang with the boys—the original Princess Leia.
Terry “Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) is the lovable nerd. Providing comic relief through a string of humiliating snafus, Toad is a precursor to C-3PO. He borrows Steve’s ’58 Chevy and picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) and makes a fool of himself trying to transcend his geek status.
Ron Howard is Steve, the preppy of the group. Since he’s going away for school, he tells his longtime girlfriend they should see other people. She’s crushed but she’s too smart to show it. She finds a new guy to make Steve jealous and it works. Their subplot is the most traditional and it doesn’t always work. Lucas has many strengths but romance isn’t one of them.
Harrison Ford makes a scene-stealing appearance as Bob Falfa, an outsider with a cowboy hat and a skull hanging from his rearview mirror. He’s the one who picks up Steve’s girl and races Milner on the back roads. He’s supposed to be a bad guy but his boyish grin is too charming. Lucas was right to switch him to the good side.
Like the droids of the galaxy, each car has its own identity. They’re even stand-ins for the people who drive them. When Bob Falfa is looking for Milner, someone tells him, “There’s a very wicked ‘55 Chevy lookin’ for you.” Graffiti also indulges Lucas’ preference for motion and the cars rarely stop moving as a result. Most of the script is delivered in shouts through open car windows. There’s no doubt the velocity Graffiti foreshadows the nonstop movement that would make Star Wars so exciting.
If American Graffiti has a Force, it’s the music. Described by Obi-Wan as the energy field that “surrounds us” and “binds the galaxy together,” the Force easily applies to the nearly 75-song soundtrack that runs uninterrupted through the film. Drawing from his personal record collection, Lucas is said to have written each scene with a song in mind. Whether it’s The Platters, Beach Boys or Buddy Holly, his selections play as important a role as John Williams’ compositions in Star Wars.
Without Graffiti, Star Wars would not have been possible. Not only did it give Lucas the on-set experiences he needed, it also grossed over $100 million. His net worth shot up and he set aside some of the profits for his still-untitled “space opera.”
The coda at the end of the film reminds viewers of the sad reality of innocence lost. Milner was killed by a drunk driver, Terry went missing in Vietnam, Steve became a salesman, and Curt a writer in Canada. This is where Graffiti diverges from the fantasy of the Star Wars universe. In space, the possibilities are endless. The same can’t be said for small-town America.