If you’re looking for a movie to celebrate summer, you can’t go wrong with George Lucas’ 1973 classic, “American Graffiti,” which is quite possibly the greatest end-of-summer movie ever made. People unfamiliar with the movie are surprised to learn that the “Star Wars” wizard made this film classic earlier in his career. And not only did “American Graffiti” put director/co-writer Lucas on the map, but it also relaunched the acting career of Harrison Ford and made other actors in the film major stars of television and movies.
Before ”American Graffiti,” Harrison Ford had given up acting and was supporting himself as a carpenter. The role of cruiser Bob Falfa lured Ford back into show business. Within four years, he would be world-famous for his role as Han Solo in “Star Wars.”
Once Upon a Time
In a Hollywood long ago, there was an enterprising young film student named George Lucas. Lucas met and partnered with Francis Ford Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s “Twixt” starring Val Kilmer releases this year). Together they made “American Graffiti” — Lucas directed, Coppola produced — and the results were cinematic magic, as Lucas sketched a lasting portrait of the last night of Summer 1962.
The film tracks its four primary characters as their paths intersect repeatedly during the night. But “American Graffiti” was practically the autobiography of George Lucas. Lucas grew up in Modesto, California during the 1950s; “American Graffiti” is set in 1962 Modesto. There’s a restless spirit in the air as the last long summer night unwinds and the streets are packed with teenagers cruising their hot rods (Lucas was also a gear head as a teenager). Made on a modest budget with many unknowns, the film became a surprise hit and its huge financial success (ultimately grossing more than $200 million) gave Lucas the industry cred he needed to make “Star Wars.”
The story is told through the eyes of four high school friends (and a massive cast of other unforgettable characters). See which stars you recognize in this trailer for “American Graffiti“.
In case you didn’t recognize the cast, that was Ron Howard (from TV’s “Happy Days” and now a respected filmmaker), Cindy Williams (TV’s “Laverne & Shirley”), Richard Dreyfuss (“Jaws,” “Close Encounters”), Suzanne Somers (TV’s “Three’s Company,” ”Step by Step”) and the man in the hat, “Indiana Jones” himself, Harrison Ford (wearing a white Stetson in this film).
Ever wonder what inspired the long-running TV series “Happy Days“ and kicked off a major 50s revival? This is it. Now recognized as a national treasure, “American Graffiti” took the simple premise of four friends hanging out together on the last real night of summer and turned it into a masterpiece that still speaks to each new generation. As long as there are teenagers with cars who are trying to find some action, there will always be a place for “American Graffiti.”
Music Makes the Mood; Details Make the Movie
Perhaps most interesting about “American Graffiti” is the extraordinary way that Lucas uses sound to set the mood in the film. The AM radio broadcast of DJ Wolfman Jack’s show seems to be blasting from every car and at every location. The hits (41 of them) just keep coming, and everyone and everything is tuned to the same station. No wonder the two-disc soundtrack album became a huge hit.
“American Graffiti” is like an anthropology study of an ancient culture, explained in a wickedly funny and ultra cool way. The movie also has great precision in how it presents the time period, the last night of summer in 1962. Every detail of the era is correct and the energy of the film captures the time period, too. Ultimately, it’s about a slightly more innocent America, right before John F. Kennedy is assassinated and the country is sucked deeply into the Vietnam War and its own internal struggles over civil rights and the rise of the counter culture.
Telling Your Story
If you have a passion for filmmaking, follow your dream like George Lucas did. There are plenty of ways to do that: Take a course about movie making from professional filmmakers. Online courses can be good sources of information, too, although you’ll get your best training one-on-one from an industry filmmaking veteran who is passing their experience along firsthand.
At Digital Media Academy’s Stanford Filmmaking Summer Camp, students learn how to make digital movies from the pros. The program is taught by professional filmmakers, and daytime activities include real production meetings (just like Hollywood studios have) — you’ll also make a movie. Evening activities can include taking in a movie premiere like real Hollywood filmmakers (such as the special pre-release screening of the latest “Harry Potter“ that DMA’s Stanford campers attended last summer). So now, are you ready to make a classic like ”American Graffiti”?
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