June 2, 2011

Movie Rating: 9/10 BD Rating: 8/10

Star Wars would likely never have been made if not for the super fine success of George Lucas’ prior film, American Graffiti (Universal). Before its release in 1973, movies about teenagers cruising around town while listening to groovy music were branded as drive-in drivel, best typified by the innocuous (and thoroughly awesome) beach movies from the 1960s. With the support of producer Francis Ford Coppola – who had just released The Godfather the previous year—American Graffiti got financed and went on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time.

American Graffiti takes place on the last day of summer in 1962, as a group of graduate high-schoolers say their goodbyes to each other as well as their charming small town and its denizens. The plot deals with a number of male and female characters, but focuses mostly on four dudes: the loverboy (Ron Howard), the everyman (Richard Dreyfuss), the aging daredevil (Paul Le Mat) and the awkward geek (Charles Martin Smith). Lucas’ film is also notable for launching the acting career of one Harrison Ford, who plays an out-of-town toughie looking for a good drag race.

As these teens tour the town in their purty hot rods, an unceasing soundtrack is inserted into the narrative via car radio. These memorable pop tunes are so crucial to their lives that one of them only realizes that his car has been stolen when he can no longer hear the radio playing off in the distance. More than any other feature before its time, music is as integral to the film as plot, characterization and location.  

Going on to inspire countless coming-of-age gems – namely Richard Linklater’s shaggy homage, Dazed and Confused—it’s no secret that American Graffiti set the benchmark for the genre. Fortunately, its influence should continue to spread thanks to this swell Blu-ray that adds a new coat of sheen to the film’s otherwise grainy, gritty visuals. There have been some grumblings about edge enhancement and other minor tweaks that a/v purists have found off-putting, but I think the film looks lovely in high-def.

As for fresh goodies, we get some vintage audition footage and a “U-Control” pop-up thingy to indicate what song is playing in the background. Interestingly, Lucas himself contributes a picture-in-picture commentary, appearing on screen only when he has something relevant to add. Truthfully, this visual enhancement is mostly distracting, as it takes up large portion of the screen. Also, Lucas has never exhibited much onscreen charisma, and his dry delivery is somewhat of a snoozer. The man has a few interesting insights to point out, but overall they’re not nearly as enlightening as Laurent Bouzereau’s 80-minute making-of doc that was also available on the previous DVD. It features interviews from just about everyone and is by far the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes document of the film that any fan could ever hope for.