George Lucas a few years before changing cinema forever with the release of Star Wars he made his love letter to his youth with American Graffiti. It was a film about teenagers cruising around Modesto, California on the last evening of summer vacation in 1962. The year of 1962 was really the last gasp of the ’50s before the 60’s become the ’60s as we think of them now. American Graffiti came out at the height of the ’50s revival of the ’70s and was a surprise smash hit. It would also spawn the extremely successful TV show Happy Days which also starred American Graffiti‘s Ron Howard but it was not connected to the film in any way.
Six years later after Lucas hit big with Star Wars he decided to revisit the characters in a sequel. The original film ends on a downbeat note which reveals the fate of many of the characters. More American Graffiti illustrates what happened to all of these characters except Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt Henderson because Dreyfuss didn’t do the film. Dreyfuss’ character was the most clearly autobiographical character for Lucas so he probably just became a film director (instead of a writer) and become filthy rich off some space film.
More American Graffiti has gained a terrible reputation over the years but there is much to like from the film. It’s narrative structure is much more adventurous than the original, it freewheelingly flashes between different New Year’s Eves 1964 to 1967. It’s a daring thing to do and takes a while to get used to but if you get into the pace of the film it works. Lucas and his director for hire Bill L. Norton used different film style to attempt to avoid confusion for the audiences. Wes Anderson would use a similar approach when he made The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Some of the different New Year Eves work really well. The relationship between Steve (Rob Howard) and Laurie Bolander (Cindy Williams) is very believable. Steve wants it to be a “traditional” household but Laurie wants to get a job instead of being a housewife, they get involved with a student protest by mistake and in the process he becomes more understanding of her. This part may be derivative of the many student protest films of the early ’70s especially The Strawberry Statement and Howard (in his final live-action role) and Cindy performances have a sense of authenticity.
The weakest is the Vietnam section, in the first film Terry Field (Charles Martin Smith) is revealed to have went missing in action. The whole thing is a build up to why he did and it’s all played for comedic effect and doesn’t work. Lucas shot a lot of it the ‘Nam stuff and it all seems so pointless when Apocalypse Now came out the same year which ironically George Lucas was set to direct originally.
The other two segments are about John Milner (Paul Le Mat) who is drag racing and viewers of the first film will know he is set to die in a grisly auto-accident. He meets a Icelandic girl and falls head over heels with despite the fact he doesn’t speak a word of English. The final segment is about Candy Clark’s Debbie Dunham who has become a full-fledged hippie and goes to the Fillmore for an end of year gig. She ends up on a strange trip with a rock band and ends up in a performing with a country band.
It’s beautifully shot by Caleb Deschanel (Zooey’s dad) who was one of Lucas’ classmates at USC. It might not quite get to heights of Haskell Wexler’s work on the original but Caleb Deschanel has gone on to become one of the unsung cinematographers in Hollywood cinema. This is was only the first feature he shot, he did however also shoot Terrence Malick’s debut short film Lanton Mills.
More American Graffiti may not hold a candle to George Lucas’ original but it’s solid examination of the counter-culture of the ’60s. Howard, Cindy Williams and Candy Clark are all great and even Harrison Ford has fun little cameo as a cop. The soundtrack is full of the hits of the time with songs by Dylan, The Byrds, The Supremes and more not unlike the original film. It’s also undeniable a better sequel than any of the Lucas directed prequels to his own Star Wars films, more proof Lucas shouldn’t direct sequels or prequels to his own films.