Directed by George Lucas after THX-1138 and before Star Wars, 1973's American Graffiti is very much a heartfelt work of nostalgia, a cinematic love letter of sorts to the late fifties and early sixties before Vietnam served a reality check for the youth of the day who were far more concerned with hot rods, rock n roll, girls and junk food culture than their own mortality. We've all been there, even if the era was different - that blissful time to which all 'grown ups' look back towards as 'the good old days,' or at the very least a simpler time before we had to worry about bills, inflation, and politics.
The movie, much of which is based around Lucas' own experiences and interests, follows a group of friends in California. Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) are fresh out of high school and heading off to college. Curt is looking forward to the change while Steve is already missing Laurie (Cindy Williams), his girlfriend and Curt's cute younger sister. The nerd of the group, Terry (Charles Martin Smith), is staying home as is the eldest member, John (Paul Le Mat), who has the fastest car on the strip and loves nothing more than showing it off, willing to accept anyone who wants to try and beat him at a race. The film basically follows this group and a few people they run into as they get ready for live to change forever - though for this last little while they're content to drive, hang out, and have a good time.
Set to a great soundtrack comprised entirely of music from the era in which it is set, the radio is always on and the instantly recognizable voice of the late, great Wolfman Jack (who appears as himself in the film) keeps all the kids hopping even if, at one point, we're told quite rightly that rock n roll has gone downhill since Buddy Holly died. The soundtrack in the film is as much a character as any of the humans and music from the likes of The Tempos, Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers, The Platters, The Big Bopper, Chuck Berry and, yes Buddy Holly all serve to set the mood perfectly. If this is a nostalgia trip, even for those of us not yet a twinkle in their father's eye when it's set, so be it, it's a damn good one. The script, which Lucas wrote and then revised with help from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, hits all the right sentimental notes at all the right times and is chock full of likable characters, most of whom are going to seem familiar to anyone out of high school long enough to be able to look back.
The performances are great - a very young Richard Dreyfuss turns in an excellent performance that was obviously a sign of things to come, while Ron Howard, already an established star thanks to his work as a child actor and in some B-movies made prior, is every bit as good. Charles Martin Smith really stands out as Terry while Paul Le Mat would never be better than he is here. Cindy Williams leads the female cast members while supporting efforts from the likes of Mackenzie Phillips. Suzanne Somers and Candy Clark are also enjoyable. Of course, look for a young Harrison Ford in a supporting role as well, here playing Bob, another guy cruising in a slick car with a girl on his arm.
While it's certainly true that the story comes second to the set pieces, the cars, and the characters it's not so much a detriment here. Sure, much of the film's running time is taken up by watching these kids do their thing simply because they still can, and that very fact that the loss of innocence is right around the corner gives it all a rather poignant feeling, bittersweet even. The film would prove quite popular at the box office and not only that, influential as well. It's no surprise to figure how Ron Howard would get cast in the lead role in the long running TV show Happy Days after watching him here, and a few knock offs would get churned out throughout the seventies, the worst of which was probably the film's official 1979 sequel, More American Graffiti, which reunites most of the original cast and gives Ron Howard a dumb looking mustache.
Universal's 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a good one, showing a natural amount of film grain but no significant print damage of note. Some edge enhancement is obvious here and there but it isn't overpowering. Colors look nice and natural, the neon signs on the strip really popping quite nicely, while skin tones look lifelike and accurate. If you look for them you might notice some minor compression artifacts in some of the darker scenes but outside of that, this is a strong transfer with little room for complaint - fans should be pleased.
An English language Dolby Digital 2.0 track is included as is a French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono dubbed track, while optional subtitles are offered in English SDH, French and Spanish. A 5.1 mix might have been fun but what's here is good. The levels are well balanced, the score sounds nice and punchy without having been too pumped up in the mix, and sound effects are nice and clear but don't bury the dialogue. There are no problems with any audible hiss or distortion to complain about and all in all, things sound just fine.
The extras start off with a commentary from director George Lucas who starts things off by talking about the autobiographical nature of this movie and how so much of it was based around what he was into when he was the age of the characters in the film. He then talks about casting the picture, Coppola's involvement as a producer, different aspects of the script and the changes that it went through, and more. Lucas isn't the most enthusiastic or animated speaker here, or anywhere for that matter, but he does a fine job of telling his story here and fans will appreciate that.
The disc also includes a documentary, carried over from the previous release, entitled The Making Of American Graffiti (78:10) that contains a wealth of interviews with the cast and crew and rounds up everyone from Lucas to Coppola to the writers to the stars like Howard, Ford, Dreyfuss, Williams and pretty much everyone you'd want to hear from. Very comprehensive, this is a well put together piece that leaves very little uncovered. It's also interesting to hear how Lucas got this project rolling after THX-1138 and how Coppola was brought on board as producer primarily because Universal wanted a 'name' attached to the film.
Rounding out the extras are the film's original trailer, menus and chapter stops. The pop up featurette about the music in the movie and the screen tests that are included on the Blu-ray release are not included on this DVD release.
Arguably the best thing that George Lucas has ever directed, American Graffiti holds up amazingly well as a funny, smart and well written movie full of great characters, great performances and memorable scenes. It's probably corny for someone who 'wasn't there' to say it's a look back at more innocent times, but it really is just that. Universal's newly remastered DVD release offers a nice upgrade over the previous DVD release and throws in a new commentary from Lucas as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.