Reel Classic: American Graffiti



American Graffiti (1973) is George Lucas’ coming of age story, following a group of friends on their last night together before two leave for college. The night separates college sweethearts Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams), involves car troubles for Terry “The Toad” (Charles Martin Smith), and sees Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) running into gang troubles. Ultimately though, the group comes together when fellow friend John (Paul Le Mat) races ‘hot shot’ Bob (Harrison Ford) on Paradise Road.

Despite having this large ensemble, American Graffiti is really about best friends Steve and Curt. Howard’s Steve is the all American boy, loved by all, and Curt seems like Steve’s sidekick. They spend the night reevaluating their positions, allowing the audience the opportunity to decode two archetypes of the American teen.

Set in 1962, the look and feel of American Graffiti is enhanced through the nighttime-setting, allowing the streetlights and neon signs of Mel’s Diner to be all the more vibrant. The tonal setting seems to be a metaphor on consumerism and poses almost as a fabrication of 1950s America, too bright to absorb.


American Graffiti embodies its characters through its camerawork; Lucas used two cameras in order for conversations to be captured simultaneously, adding the experience of back and forth conversations. Then there’s the use of vignettes. Throughout the night, each story is told from a different perspective, working effectively as a way to personalise each character and relay the idea that the film takes place across a single night.

American Graffiti is historically impressive, and has been credited for its portrayal of rock ‘n’ roll and cruising subcultures. Cruising was a subculture one would do to “pick up”, a pastime Lucas presumably took part in. Moving this subculture to a 1962 context, Lucas wanted to recreate the point of transition and lost innocence in American culture.

American Graffiti strongly emphasises the car as a lifestyle and is best articulated through John. Described as a real “JD” (juvenile delinquent), John is a greaser into rock ‘n’ roll and cars. In a latter monologue he discusses the number of teenage deaths resulting from speeding, and just as James Dean had starred in a car-safety advisement before his tragedy, irony becomes the reality. John is a tragic character, unable to progress, nor wanting to. Musically, he describes how he hates “that surf shit” (The Beach Boys) and that “rock ‘n’ roll’s been going down ever since Buddy Holly died”. This moment signposts the transitional change in the era as the soundtrack moves from the 1950s to the 1960s.


Not only figuratively but also literally, the curated music by Lucas captures the right moods and helps stage the narrative. There is an enjoyment and pleasure in listening to the diegetic audio, which at times is personalised by Woolfman Jack, a real radio announcer from the 1960s and 1970s. Besides being a familiar voice throughout the narrative, Woolfman Jack metaphorically speaks to his characters and guides them through the night.

American Graffiti could solely be written on its trivia alone. Lucas deliberately placed performance mistakes in the final cut to enhance the natural flair and realism of the actors.

The characters and era inspired the popular series Happy Days, which also starred Ron Howard as the quintessential American teenager. Equally, Terry’s nerdy persona, John’s rebellion, and Curt’s ambition are all different stages of George Lucas’s teenage life.

American Graffiti has a legacy, which is personal and autobiographical to Lucas, allowing the viewer to experience this chapter of teenage lifestyle and American culture.