American Graffiti and the Great Boomer Experience, 40 Years Later

DJ Wolfman Jack
Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

American Graffiti and the Great Boomer Experience, 40 Years Later

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Much has been attributed to the American Baby Boom—most especially all things rock and roll and very nearly everything of political or social consequence after 1960. The problem—as anyone who understands the real meaning of the term “Baby Boom” grasps—is that the vast sea of pop cultural and societal movement for which the Boomers ascribe themselves great credit is largely the work of people older than the Boomers themselves. The list of misappropriation is so large that it becomes comical after only minutes—all members of The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan, Carole King, Jimi Hendrix; Led Zeppelin; The Beach Boys; Elvis Presley; Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Crosby; James Dean, Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman; Timothy Leary, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Ralph Nader; John Kerry, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis; Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Kurt Vonnegut; Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein…well, you get the point.

Like most of my Boomer brethren, I too have laid cultural claim to many of these icons of my generation. The Post War generation is especially prone to this grand misappropriation when in defensive mode—when pressed, as P.J. O’Rourke has pointed out, to offer up an unembellished Group Resume of genuine accomplishment. It gets tough. Landing on the moon? We were teenagers and kids. Our greatest political achievements? Bill Clinton and George W Bush. (John McCain and John Kerry, though veterans of Vietnam, were born well before the Boom, and Barack Obama, having arrived in 1961, is generally disqualified from the Boom years). Our great musical achievements?  The Eagles slide in as the first supergroup to have a majority of members born after World War II, bringing in tow with them Jackson Browne, Phil Collins and Linda Ronstadt…barely. Novelists, poets, writers…artists? If you start splitting hairs with me over what the word “artist” means, then you have made my point. Andy Kaufman was a Boomer; Prince, Tim Fite and Lady Gaga came later.

Which raises the obvious question, asked a thousand times in as many movies, books, articles, academic studies and barroom arguments: is the collective memory of Boomers based mostly on the experience? It was a grand time with grand diversions and grand political and social intentions, but it happened thanks largely to the hard work and creativity of people frankly and clearly older than us—those very older generation folk we so loved to disdain. And even now, for those whose memories have not been fractured, rusted out or lobotomized by heavy portions of recreational misadventures with pharmaceuticals, the early Boomer tableau is one of riding the crest of an enormous experiential wave.

Or, perhaps more appropriately—in the age before drugs—an entire generation, cruising slowly in their car along the same long strip of city, town, beach front or shopping center…stopping for burgers and fries along the way and hoping to get lucky in the back seat.

This summer will mark the fortieth anniversary of the release of American Graffiti, the landmark film which propelled writer-director-producer George Lucas from relative obscurity and into the movie-going consciousness, and the film which may have singlehandedly triggered the start of a cultural wave of nostalgia and sentimentality for the 1950s and early 1960s.

Lucas, a shy, underweight kid from the valley near Modesto, began making films as a teenager, racing his small two-cylinder Fiat as a hobby, and discovering that a cool car—as many a male teen has learned—is an easier way to attract girls. After film school at USC, on the set of Finian’s Rainbow, he became friends with Francis Ford Coppola, falling into the tight circle of young filmmakers and screen writers working in the area south of San Francisco. One of his first projects was a documentary, Filmmaker, in which he illuminated the process of movie making by embedding himself in Coppola’s crew during the 1968-69 shooting of The Rain People, which starred Shirley Knight and a young James Caan.

American Graffiti was the vehicle which would—several years before Star Wars—bring him enormous fame, and clout as a director.

Initially screened in San Francisco to a packed house which included Lucas, his producer Francis Ford Coppola, and several movie executives from Universal and other major studios, there was instant skepticism by the top Hollywood brass that the film was even a film at all. Despite the fact that moviegoers that night were genuinely invested in the emotions and characters of the story—even applauding at many key scenes—the honchos in dark suits doubted the film’s capacity to draw a paying audience, anywhere, and they had serious doubts about their ability to market such a quirky, out-of-the-box movie. Lucas, stinging from being dumped from the Apocalypse Now project (a film which Coppola would make with critical success in 1979), and suffering financially for turning down directorial gigs for Hair and Tommy, neither of which greatly interested him, nevertheless felt certain that American Graffiti had both artistic merit as well as box office potential.

But Universal wasn't happy with Lucas's finished product.  And to make matters worse, the studio execs present at the screening winced visibly at the movie’s soundtrack, a more-or-less constant chain of songs from the late 1950s and the early 1960s, which, in the eyes of the Hollywood chieftains, would result in unimaginable cost overruns for the hundreds of music license agreements, fees and royalties. The soundtrack, in their minds, would be a legal nightmare. When pressed to eliminate the undercurrent of popular music, limiting it to perhaps only a handful of songs, Lucas bridled. This film, in his opinion, would work best because of that evocative musical tableau.

With the help of his friend Coppola, and a few others, the elaborate pop musical underpinning was retained, and the rest—as they say—is history. Even to this day, the American Graffiti soundtrack remains one of the most memorable in film history, and the film’s enormous success broke through the long standing barrier between directors and their studio execs over the use of music. Had it not been for Lucas and his stubborn requirement that the music be a part of the narrative, later directors such as Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) would have not had the capacity to create the same layered, rich cinematic canvases using evocative period music.

American Graffiti had a complex early life. Though the studios were skeptical of the initial drafts and treatments, Lucas finally persuaded a producer at United Artists to float enough money to develop a complete script. The original screenplay was mostly the work of Lucas and one of his film school classmates, Richard Walter. Walter worked on the writing project while Lucas completed his futuristic, Orwellian social chiller THX1138. Walter’s initial script for the teen movie was darker, violent, sexually explicit and prone to graver and more melodramatic flourishes. Though it looked marketable as a cheap exploitation flick, Lucas felt that this betrayed the personal element of the story, so he rewrote it completely—merging a variety of real life memories and experiences into the single, evocative narrative the film eventually became. The film’s working title, Another Quiet Night in Modesto, was abandoned in favor of something wide a wider appeal, and a title that might avoid the appearance that it was a regional or “little” film. And despite some pressures from early backers to set the story on the East Coast, Lucas insisted that it be set in small town California.

After several misfires with other writers, including writing input from his film school colleagues Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, Lucas rewrote the story on his own. Legend holds that Lucas meticulously selected songs from his own record collection at home, choosing each song for its evocation of the period or mood, then writing each scene—dialogue, scenery, visual effects, lighting, even the complex choreography of cars and waitresses on roller skates—as a shot sequence to accompany the song, essentially building the storyboard on top of the soundtrack. Summoning parts of his own life in central California, Lucas grafted a piece of himself onto each of the film’s characters, shifting the story from Richard Walter’s vision of danger, action, violence and sex, into what would become a remarkably personal story, not just for Lucas, but also for the millions of Boomers who would so easily and comfortably identify with the characters and their motivations.

Lucas infused heavy doses of his own life into American Graffiti, and his friends and colleagues have often argued about which of the characters most closely resembles the George Lucas who grew up in the area around Modesto. Even the climactic car crash could be traced to Lucas’s own near-death experience when, in 1962 (the year the film was set) he lost control of his Fiat, sideswiping a Chevy Impala and smashing his much smaller car into a huge tree. The movie contains frequent references to real events in the valley of Lucas’s life, such as a legendary auto crash which killed eight teenagers, cited by the fictional character John Milner. In real life, seven teens were killed in a single car crash only a few hundred yards from the Lucas home in 1961.

So, building his imagery upon the backbone of the rock and roll music of the 1950s and early 60s, and after building the elements of what would become a highly personal storyline, he set about finding a path toward getting the film made.

Eventually, after being turned down my many of the major studios—including 20th Century Fox, MGM and Paramount—Lucas was able to persuade a few friends at Universal to finance the film, but Universal agreed on the condition that the film would be shot on a relatively low budget of $600,000. Universal was still skeptical of the script’s potential, and retained serious doubts about the music, as well as the complexity, logistical problems and overtime involved in so much night shooting. Only after the huge success of The Godfather in 1972 did Universal reluctantly agree to increase the budget for the young friend of Coppola, but then by only an additional $150,000, bringing the total budget to $750,000.

Like other young directors at that time, Lucas had been stung—probably more than most—by the constant sellout and compromise which Hollywood seemed to embrace. His previous film, THX1138, though critically well-received, had been a frustrating process, requiring endless compromise and producing weak box office numbers. Despite the low budget assigned to American Graffiti, Lucas was determined to take this new project in the direction of something fun, and, he was sure, genuine success.

Filmed in central California, mostly in Petaluma (the Mel’s Diner scenes were shot in San Francisco), American Graffiti follows an entire night in the lives of a group of friends recently graduated from high school. Two of them, Curt (played by Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (played by Ron Howard) are each facing a new reality, crossing the threshold from teenager to adult as they prepare to leave for college the next day. Others within the group, for better or worse, will stay in their small town. John Milner (played by Paul Le Mat) is a local ne’er-do-well and hot rodder who must defend his title as fastest-guy-in-the-county, gunslinger style, against all challengers, including Bob Falfa, a bullying, gregarious, cocky roadster played by Harrison Ford. Cindy Williams plays Laurie, Steve’s longtime girlfriend, who now must contend with Steve’s transparently selfish desire to date others while he is away at college. Charles Martin Smith plays Terry, Steve’s geeky younger brother who has been entrusted with Steve’s mint-condition car, and Candy Clark plays Debbie, a girl who happens to find charm in Terry’s nerdish ways despite the strange and buffoonish patchwork of lies and twisted stories he tells in an attempt to impress her. Mackenzie Phillips, who was only 12 when principal filming began, plays a preteen misplaced—the result of a prank—into Milner’s world of machismo and adrenalin. Finally there is Suzanne Somers, an elusive woman in a white Thunderbird who charms and seduces Richard Dreyfuss with only a glance and a smile through her car window.

There is no story, per se, only the naturalistic flow of this one, long night and the many dozens of youthful social interactions that would have been typical in places like Modesto, Lodi or Stockton. At the core of the loose narrative are the struggles, self-doubts and competing emotions common among high school graduates suddenly facing some variant of adulthood—job, community college, out-of-state education, trade school, looming marriages, sudden break-ups, fear of leaving the nest. Curt and Steve engage in a more-or-less continuous push and shove on the issue, each weighing the pros and cons of leaving their homes and their friends for the unknown future. In between, the vibrant night life of Saturday in small town California rolls up and down the main street, between the local banks and the hardware stores and the dress shops in a mostly unstructured narrative, a few minutes of Steve and Laurie, a few minutes of Curt with the local leather jacket greasers, a few minutes of Terry serenading Debbie, a few minutes of tension as Falfa stalks Milner.

In place of sexuality, Lucas injects the most profound of all mid-Twentieth Century material forms of seduction—the American love affair with the car. The creamy, glossy automobiles seem to ooze with erotic allure in the predominantly nighttime scenery, especially those sequences shot in and around the burger joint, and the hundred-plus scenes filmed along the neon and candy-colored Main Street. Cars and characters are easily and frequently interchanged, kids jumping from one car to another as the social specter slides from one end of the strip to the next, then, back again. Seduction, flirting, friendship, social stratification, social reordering, class struggle, even aggression are all played out via the cars.

The music serves, as Lucas had planned, as the underpinning upon which the scenes and encounters are affixed, and through which mood and tone can be established. The atmospheric tapestry evokes nearly every element of the great pre-Sixties Boomer experience—fast cars, drive-ins, cruising the illuminated retail strip, preppies, greasers, geeks, socialites, jocks, car-hops, barely checked sexual energies and curiosities, the golden years of early television (as seen in a shop window), and the constant soundtrack of the great Post War aural youth experience—rock and roll. Throughout the night, our characters listen in near unison, from every car radio and every handheld transistor device, to a linear thread of pop music sound, beginning with Bill Haley & The Comets (Rock Around the Clock, appropriately), and then channeling moviegoers through a virtual greatest hits of the era; from Del Shannon to Buddy Holly, from The Big Bopper to The Fleetwoods to The Flamingos, from Chuck Berry to The Platters. In fact, the American Graffiti soundtrack remains one of the most remarkable collections of iconic early rock and roll available—at the time released vinyl on a double record album, and still available today on a CD version with a few additional songs.

And to drive home the omnipresent impact of rock and roll radio so familiar to the long Baby Boom experience, there is the disc jockey—in this case, the unmistakable voiceprint of Wolfman Jack, whose gravelly, irreverent on-air banter fills the brief gaps between songs and provides endless amusement for the young listeners. (The Wolfman has a cameo scene with Richard Dreyfuss when Curt seeks to have a dedication placed on the air that night).

Largely unknown at the time of its release in 1973, most of the younger performers are nevertheless perfectly cast, with Dreyfuss—especially—in an entirely likeable and believable performance. Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Ron Howard and Bo Hopkins all also give excellent performances, and even Harrison Ford’s grim, gunslinger role has its moments of likeability and charm, as when he briefly breaks out in song in a vain attempt to woo Laurie (Cindy Williams). And there are many, myself included, who feel that Charles Martin Smith nearly steals the movie with his lovable portrayal of the geeky, hapless Terry the Toad. Smith's performance would immediately establish his reputation as a serious actor, especially for the quirky parts--as in his acclaimed later roles in Cry Wolf and Starman.

The film’s parallel stories focus on a sort of planned convergence—that of Curt’s departure the next morning from the local airport. But overnight, Curt finds himself growing increasingly obsessed with the beautiful young woman he had glimpsed briefly from the backseat of Steve’s car early in the film. In the end, he is never able to catch her, though an hour or so before his departure she calls him at a payphone. She remains cryptic and illusive.

At the first screening at the Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, on January 28, 1973, the film was an unmitigated smash hit, and the audience roared with approval at many of the scenes, giving it an ovation at the end. Many of the movie industry workers present that day said they had never seen an audience react so favorably during a simple screening. Still, some of the studio execs balked, unable to comprehend that a non-exploitative film built upon the soundtrack and trappings of youth life in 1962 could possible resonate with moviegoers: it was 1973, and those 11 years seemed either too far in the distant past, or, conversely, too close and too soon. Surely a box office success was not likely from simple nostalgia for the 1950s or early 60s, and the music seemed especially irrelevant in the hard rock environment which predominated radio in the early 70s—a world of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Three Dog Night, music which seemed light years more complex, experimental and sonorous than the simple pleasures of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode or The Regents’ Barbara Ann.

Minutes after the screening and as the house lights came on, one of the greatest film-industry arguments ever recounted broke out between Coppola and Universal’s Ned Tanen while dozens watched. Tanen, under pressure himself from Universal, was blunt and unsparing: he hated the movie. He told Lucas and those standing next to him that they had let him down. Coppola, according to those who witnessed the legendary confrontation, exploded, telling Tanen “you should get down on your knees and thank this kid for saving your job.” The argument escalated to epic levels as more people wandered into the discussion. The emotional debate pitted the advocates along generational lines, and a clear distinction was drawn between the two camps: the young filmmakers were sure that they had struck an innovative chord with the audience; Old School studio execs certain that their judgment and adherence to formula would work best. The confrontation would prove to be not only one of the greatest of Hollywood legend, but also pivotal for the industry.

Over the objections of Coppola, who even offered to buy back the film intact and assume the risk on his own, the studio moguls wanted Lucas to recut the film into something more to their conventional tastes, and when Lucas balked, they threatened to have an outside party edit the film. But in the wake of the success of The Godfather (Coppola could by that point do no wrong), and based in part on favorable industry chatter (most of it derived by those who had seen the film in January 1973), Universal backed down, even letting Lucas keep the costly soundtrack. Because of a high stakes dispute over the royalties to be paid for an Elvis Presley recording, a single song by The King was removed, leaving the rest of the music mostly intact and instantly creating what would become one of the best-selling motion picture soundtracks in American history (by the end of the 1970s, over 3 million copies had been sold).

In the end, Universal still insisted on some minor changes, and those cuts became a semi-permanent source of angst for Lucas for many years. Nevertheless, at the next official screening in May, with all final edits in place (For complex licensing reasons, Harrison Ford’s a capella ad lib of Some Enchanted Evening was cut from the original theatrical release, and inserted only years later on DVD and Blu-Ray), the movie inspired the same powerful and positive audience reaction. Steven Spielberg, who was present for the May screening, said the preview was unlike anything he had ever witnessed before or after. “It hit a chord of nostalgia,” Spielberg told film writer Dale Pollock, “because it was such a warm nod backward; it was for George’s, mine, everybody’s generation.” Even with the smashing success of the second screening, Tanen was dejected, and only later admitted that his dim view—and the view of others in the Hollywood offices—may have been based on generational factors.

The movie was an instant success, filling theaters to capacity in every city and town in which it played, but gathering even more momentum over the next weeks and months. Universal, at first, deemed it a cult phenomenon, but as box office sales continued to ramp upward, it was quickly apparent that the movie had tapped into a new and powerful source of collective Boomer nostalgia.

Though it cost only about $770,000 to produce, American Graffiti would eventually rake in well over $115 million in the U.S. alone, giving it the distinction of being the most profitable movie in American film history when measured by its cost-to-profit margin. The film was a dazzling success even before the end of 1973, and soon afterwards, the up-and-coming Lucas would join Coppola among those young directors and producers who would begin to remake Hollywood through their independent lens.

The movie indirectly (some have argued directly) spawned an enormously popular TV show, Happy Days, which imported the Ron Howard personage very nearly intact and brought with it variants on nearly every character found in Lucas’s film. In turn, Happy Days also spawned spin-offs, and, in a familiar pathway through the television and movie business, eventually saturated the viewing markets with 1950s and early 60s nostalgia in a variety of venues. Many of the recording artists featured in the soundtrack made substantial musical comebacks, touring and performing again to large crowds drawn from the success of American Graffiti, the film. For the youngest moviegoers, post-Boomers, the film introduced at the most basic of cultural levels the origins of rock and roll.

American Graffiti also made stars of Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Suzanne Somers, Kathleen Quinlan, Mackenzie Phillips and others. After Happy Days, Ron Howard turned to directing, remarking often that his experiences on the set of American Graffiti had been more formative for his love of cinema than all those years spent as a child actor. Howard would go on to direct hugely successful movies with a galaxy of A-list stars, including Backdraft, Far and Away, and Apollo 13.

Perhaps most telling, American Graffiti enabled Lucas—and by example, a dozen other directors and producers—to break free, at least in part, from the studio system and its familiar constraints. His own company, Lucasfilm, would soon go into production on his long-harbored and semi-secret project—a matinee swashbuckler adventure sci-fi called Star Wars. Star Wars also would be widely interpreted at that time of its release as a baroque and textural reinvention of the Boomer ethos, complete with all the familiar morality plays, the struggles with leaving home, adult responsibilities, saber-rattling versus pacifism, good versus evil, and the always present challenge of facing one’s fears and the unknown.

Had American Graffiti backfired commercially, or had the studio chiefs had their way with the final cut, the trajectory of George Lucas might have been quite different, and the careers of many other young filmmakers, including Spielberg and Howard, would perhaps have never fully flowered.

In the end, American Graffiti showed us that we could see movies in a different context. Its loose narrative structure and revolving character vignette editing style largely retooled the way many new movies were made, and gave ample opportunity to dozens of younger directors—most born after World War II, and some born after the Boomer Years—to see storytelling in a new light. Would films like Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Fargo, or Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation have been possible without George Lucas and American Graffiti?

American Graffiti was the first movie to attempt to tie together all the core elements of the Boomer experience, and its complex yin yang duality so familiar to those born after World War II, for Lucas had chosen—intentionally or not—to set his story in the early summer of 1962, months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a year and a half before the assassination of John F. Kennedy—events often described as the critical turning points for an entire generation, the moment when an idyllic world of teenaged innocence was replaced with new fears and dark unknowns.  It was also the first time a major movie touched on what would become the rawest nerve for Boomers as they paraded into adulthood throughout the late 60s and into the 70s: they were not necessarily in uniform agreement on the issues of culture or society.  In a telling short scene, Milner--who is older--and Mackenzie Phillip's preteen character, argue over the merits of a Beach Boys song on the car radio, the younger girl excitedly declaring the music "boss" and Milner scoffing at its significance.  Rock and Roll, he declares, has not been the same since the death of Buddy Holly.         

As for the collective achievements of “our generation,” George Lucas—widely coopted by those of us among the great cultural wave of Boomer sentimentality—was born in 1944, roughly two years before the start of that great surge of mid-century births, and therefore decidedly pre-Boom.