In a classic example of “show, don’t tell,” American Graffiti invites viewers to accompany four friends on their last night before heading off to college. Quietly sketching the clash of cultures and generations, the movie beautifully captured the feeling of typical teenagers teetering on the very edge of adulthood.
Filmed in a quasi-documentary style, with candid and nostalgic aesthetics, George Lucas does not rely on heavy plot mechanics or dramatic twists. Instead, this film lies firmly in the genre of atmospheric nostalgia, inviting the viewer into an immersive snapshot of a time and place.
American Graffiti’s ensemble cast — featuring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, and Cindy Williams, to name a few — create memorable performances. However, the town itself, with its cruising culture, neon-lit diners, and rock radio, has just as much of a starring role.
Check out the American Graffiti trailer
As an ode to a simpler era, American Graffiti brilliantly expresses the bittersweet feeling of leaving behind familiar settings and experiences to step into the exciting, yet terrifying unknown of adulthood.
Today, this lauded & loved film endures as an artifact of 1960s Americana. Its influence extends far beyond its runtime — as evidenced by the the many films and television shows that have tried to recreate its distinct charm and ambiance.
So, gather ’round, buckle up, and adjust the rearview mirror — it’s time to take a ride back to the era of quaint high school dances, drive-in theaters, and the promise of endless summer nights. We’ve collected some nostalgia items to help take you back — old photos from the film, a review that was published back in 1973, the official movie trailer, plus a look at the cast nearly 40 years later.
American Graffiti cast: Then & now
American Graffiti: George Lucas’ film is everything a good movie should be
By F. Anthony Macklin, Journal Herald Film Critic
American Graffiti is everything a good movie should be. It heightens its elements, without distorting them, and makes one’s head swim with its evocative sounds and images.
American Graffiti is so good it seems unstructured. It flows like memory itself. But in actuality, it is a brilliantly conceived and executed motion picture.
Director-writer George Lucas has used 41 “golden oldies” from the ’50s and early ’60s to back up his plot. It is an uncanny method. The songs waft over the car radios as the characters cruise around town in their custom coupes. The music doesn’t intrude; it belongs. The photography by Haskell Wexler turns shimmering city streets into the haunts of memory.
American Graffiti is about a time and place, California 1962 — but more, it is about a time of life. It is about that awkward, gawky, trying time when one is trying out roles, assuming nonchalance, and straining for identity. It is a time that princes and nonentities share — the end of adolescence.
IF IN MEMORY, it seems a simpler age, it certainly wasn’t simpler at the time.
American Graffiti is about four young men. It takes place on their last summer night together. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), a recipient of a scholarship from the local Moose lodge, is uncertain about leaving the following morning for college in the east.
On his final night in town, he rides in different cars, gets involved with a gang called the Pharaohs, and tries to contact an enticing blonde (Suzanne Somers) cruising by herself in a white T-bird.
Steve (Ronny Howard) goes to a hop, breaks up with his steady girl, and wanders about also wondering about journeying east to college. The clumsy Terry (Charlie Martin Smith), nicknamed Toad, is given Steve’s car, and picks up a sexy, blonde girl who likes fast living, a standard he gropingly tries to emulate.
Big John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the number one local drag racing champ with his bright yellow bomb. He winds up stuck with a frisky 12-year-old girl in his car.
Each young man undergoes a moment of truth — Curt leaves the nest, Steve capitulates for a while, Terry has unexpected success in his new role, and Big John resigns himself to holding on to his incomplete way of life.
American Graffiti is a kaleidoscope of memories: the damp hops, the pleated skirts, the young teacher and his student paramour, the buying of liquor, the calling out of car windows, the cars full of girls, the drive-ins with their cherry cokes, the braying disc jockey, the racing, the jargon, the fantasy, and the insecurity. They’re all present in American Graffiti.
The music keeps pace: the blaring saxophone, the eternal beat, and the crooning gibberish that made sense to the select, to all of us. Everyone should be able to find several songs from his personal all-time top 10 of rock ‘n’ roll; and there are almost forgotten delights such as “Come Go with Me” by the Del-Vikings and “Barbara Anne” by the Regents.
There are a few missing persons and records. American Graffiti doesn’t go back quite as far as “Oh Happy Day” backed with “You Went Away” by Don Howard. But one can’t have everything.
BESIDES THE background music, Lucas also makes ingenious use of live figures. In one scene, at a hop, there is a group dressed in red blazers copying Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop,” including a singer with his drooping curl dipped in oil and frying in the night.
And there is the disc jockey. In Philly it was Joe Niagara; in Cleveland. Bill Randall; and in California and the movie it is the mysterious figure of Wolfman Jack, who hides out in a small studio cutting the night with his irrepressible howls.
Where “American Graffiti” parts with reality is in the wholesomeness of its characters. They all — even the Pharaohs — are likable sorts. But this does no harm; it adds to the mellowness of the memory. If the characters aren’t totally authentic, they are still convincing.
The happenings are laced with comedy. And, Lucas jazzes things up with a holdup, the wild dismantling of a cop car, and an auto wreck. These “big” scenes give the film dramatic punch.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of American Graffiti is that it doesn’t limit itself just to those who matured, or tried to mature in the early ’60s; it reaches out beyond its time and locale to all of us who have fumbled, worried, exalted, and somehow grown up.
A top tune from the American Graffiti soundtrack
American Graffiti soundtrack: 41 songs and their performers
“(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets
“Sixteen Candles” by The Crests
“Runaway” by Del Shannon
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
“That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly
“Fannie Mae” by Buster Brown
“At the Hop” by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids (in the movie as “Herby and the Heartbeats”)
“She’s So Fine” by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids
“The Stroll” by The Diamonds
“See You in September” by The Tempos
“Surfin’ Safari” by The Beach Boys
“He’s the Great Imposter” by The Fleetwoods
“Almost Grown” by Chuck Berry
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters
“Little Darlin'” by The Diamonds
“Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee and the Starliters
“Barbara Ann” by The Regents
“Book of Love” by The Monotones
“Maybe Baby” by Buddy Holly
“Ya Ya” by Lee Dorsey
“The Great Pretender” by The Platters
“Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino
“Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry
“I Only Have Eyes for You” by The Flamingos
“Get a Job” by The Silhouettes
“To the Aisle” by The Five Satins
“Do You Wanna Dance” by Bobby Freeman
“Party Doll” by Buddy Knox
“Come Go with Me” by The Del-Vikings
“You’re Sixteen” by Johnny Burnette
“Love Potion No. 9” by The Clovers
“Since I Don’t Have You” by The Skyliners
“Chantilly Lace” by The Big Bopper
“Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning
“Crying in the Chapel” by The Orioles
“A Thousand Miles Away” by The Heartbeats
“Heart and Soul” by The Cleftones
“Green Onions” by Booker T. & the MG’s
“Only You (And You Alone)” by The Platters
“Goodnight, Well It’s Time to Go” by The Spaniels
“All Summer Long” by The Beach Boys
American Graffiti cars
This classic movie includes a rich backdrop of car culture, and numerous models make an appearance throughout the film. There are some standout American Graffiti cars that are particularly significant to the storyline and characters. Here are some of them!
- 1958 Chevrolet Impala – Driven by Ron Howard’s character, Steve Bolander.
- 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe – This yellow hot rod is driven by Paul Le Mat’s character, John Milner.
- 1955 Chevrolet One-Fifty – Bob Falfa, played by Harrison Ford, drives this black car.
- 1954 Chevrolet Impala – Driven by Toad, played by Charles Martin Smith.
- 1956 Ford Thunderbird – This white convertible is driven by Suzanne Somers’ character, the mysterious blonde.
- 1956 Chevrolet 210 Sedan – This is the car that Joe, played by Bo Hopkins, and his gang, The Pharaohs, cruise around in.