In most non-fact-based films, closing-title epilogues are superfluous: After all, these are fictional characters, not historical figures, and their lives as we care to know them end as soon as the screen fades to black. But the revelations about the fates of the four main characters in George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti may provide the film’s most profound, bittersweet moment. This one last summer night, cruising the streets of Modesto, California in the early ’60s, represents the end of their carefree lives as teenagers and the beginning of another, more uncertain phase—one subject to cruel twists of fate, the Vietnam War, or perhaps just the humble workaday activities of the average adult. American Graffiti is an unabashed nostalgia piece, but the poignancy of Lucas holding onto this memory only becomes clear at the end. For these boys, nothing would ever be the same again.
Like a lot of cherished memories, American Graffiti too often seems preserved in amber, lacking the complexity and ambiguity of like-minded successors like Diner or Dazed And Confused, but it has a strong depth of feeling. Watching it today, it’s really just a pleasure to remember a time when Lucas seemed more connected with earthlings, and not so walled into his digital landscapes. Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, and Charlie Martin Smith play the coming-of-agers who congregate around Mel’s Drive-In, but spend much of the night cruising the streets in beautiful cars, getting into trouble. Some drama percolates here and there—Howard contemplates breaking up with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams), Le Mat takes a challenge to his drag-race supremacy, Smith proves a poor caretaker of Howard’s beloved Chevy Impala—but nothing terribly consequential. It’s a wild night, but rest assured, everyone will get through it intact.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Lucas did some unnecessary tinkering on the new edition, most notably by digitally enhancing the opening shot to look more like a picture postcard than a real-world ’60 diner. The Blu-ray also looks artificially crisp for a low-budget movie from 1973; it’s true that American Graffiti has never looked better, but should it look this good? Nevertheless, Lucas’ busy hands doesn’t diminish the impact of a film that’s clearly personal and heartfelt, and now represents a rare opportunity to access a director who receded as his iconic status rose.
Key features: The DVD and Blu-ray each have a comprehensive 70-minute making-of documentary and screen tests of the actors, but the best supplements are on the Blu-ray, particularly a “U-Control” picture-in-picture commentary track by Lucas that produces some fascinating anecdotes on select scenes.