“American Graffiti” and the Weight of Nostalgia

May 14 is the natal day of New Hollywood Boy Genius George Lucas (b. 1944). Having written about his most successful movie franchise just a few days ago, I thought today might be a propitious time for a peek at an earlier project of his, the success of which made it all possible, 1973’s American Graffiti. 

Lucas had attended USC with Steven Spielberg. One of his first professional projects as a grad student was a job on Finian’s Rainbow (1968), directed by USC grad Francis Ford Coppola. In 1969 he co-founded American Zoetrope with Coppola. Their first production was the slow-moving science fiction film THX-1138 (1971) starring Robert Duvall, a commercial and critical flop at the time, now regarded as a a classic. American Graffiti was a sensible rebound from the disappointment of THX-1138: relatively low-budget and with mainstream appeal. Furthermore, producer Coppola had by now had his blockbuster hit The Godfather (1972).

Set in the early ’60s, American Graffiti basically chronicled a single night in the lives of a bunch of teenagers and young adults as they cruised the strip in Lucas’s hometown of Modesto, California. The cast is like a Garden of Eden of future stars. Some would be associated with the New Hollywood clique, like Richard Dreyfus, later to star in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979), and Harrison Ford of Lucas’s own Star Wars saga and the Indian Jones films, which were Lucas-Spielberg team-ups. Some of the stars themselves brought nostalgic echoes, like Ron Howard of The Andy Griffith Show, but soon of Happy Days, and Mackenzie Phillips, daughter of John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, herself soon to star on One Day at a Time, as well as classic rock DJ Wolfman Jack. Other future tv stars included Cindy Williams of Laverne and Shirley, Debra Lee Scott of Welcome Back Kotter, Joe Spano of Hill Street Blues, and Suzanne Sommers of Three’s Company (though she has no lines in the movie, she’s the elusive Blonde in the T-Bird). As the prototypical nerd “Toad”, Charles Martin Smith enjoyed a kind of career high water mark in the film. It also featured the charismatic Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark (here looking like a dead ringer for Stella Stevens), Bo Hopkins, Kathleen Quinlan, and Lynne Marie Stewart. 

While any description of the film is going to sound “plotless”, American Graffiti is one of those movies that feels meaningful, largely because of the historical setting, a soundtrack that triggers memories and stirs emotions, and great performances by the actors who make seemingly small events into big ones. And when you are young, EVERYTHING is important.

As we wrote here nostalgia was already a thing in the early ’70s, but it was really American Graffiti that set off the 1950s’-early ’60s nostalgia craze that resulted in products as diverse as the sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley,, variety shows by Sha Na Na and Bobby Vinton, new hit singles by the likes of Neil Sedaka and Frankie Valli, nostalgic LPs like John Lennon’s Rock and Roll (1975) and the Beach Boys’ Rock and Roll Music (1976), and later movies like Animal House (1978), Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1981), and Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982).

Growing up during these times I was naturally very much into all of this, encouraged by older folks for whom it all resonated, and it was very influential on me. In later years though, when I started to unpack it, a certain resentment began to set in as I began to realize that my own generation (I’m at the old end of Generation X) was sort of suffocated under the weight of the numerically greater Baby Boomers. After all, what was I doing experiencing THEIR memories? What did it have to do with me? It was all before my time! I’ll always envy the generation that got to have its own time. But even deeper reflection made me realize that plenty of people my own age DID. Other kids, for example, were into contemporary pop music. It was ME who couldn’t get his head out of the past, the supposedly better past, a past that wasn’t mine. And I suppose that’s okay, because where else would we get history nerds?