The events of American Graffiti (dir. George Lucas, 1973) occur on the last day of summer 1962. Observing this fact without context makes that choice seem arbitrary. Early 1962 was not a particularly eventful period in American history, and the events that did take place were examples of American ingenuity reaching new heights. John Glenn became the first American to orbit space. The Space Needle opened to the public for the first time. The world’s first communication satellite was launched into space. But the events that came in the years following kickstarted a disruption in the quiet existence of suburban America. The Cuban missile crisis would drive the Cold War to new heights later that year. The Kennedy administration would continue to escalate the Vietnam War before the Johnson and Nixon administrations would develop it into the conflict it would be known as. The country was having their illusions of quaint simplicity whisked away from them every time they turned on the news. In American Graffiti, George Lucas was able to use his own adolescent memories to give audiences a portrait of the last summer of innocence for a generation about to be thrust into an era of war.
It’s not as if you get a sense of incoming dread while watching American Graffiti, though. It’s a coming-of-age dramedy that takes place entirely during one night on the streets of Modesto, California. Steve (Ron Howard) experiences the entire course of an On-Off relationship with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) while it’s still dark outside. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) has a series of adventures while he attempts to track down the woman of his dreams that he has never talked to. John (Paul Le Mat) avoids a drag racing challenge from Bob (Harrison Ford) and drives a precocious 12-year-old (Mackenzie Phillips) around town while Terry (Charles Martin Smith) traverses the town with Debbie (Candy Clark).
The only juxtaposition between changing time periods and cultural moments that Lucas provides any on-screen shift between is the music. American Graffiti has an especially celebrated soundtrack. It features such mid 50’s hits as “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & the Comets and “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper, but it also bridges that cultural gap with songs from the early 60’s like “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones and “All Summer Long” by the Beach Boys. This choice to feature songs from almost a decade apart adds a texture to the film that otherwise would not be there, affixing a soundtrack to the characters that represents both the music of their childhoods and current state of post-adolescence. The songs noticeably all have a similar sound to them, which helps portray the consistency of the time period. Within the next two years, the Beatles would kick off the British Invasion and completely change how popular music sounded while also giving more variety to American airwaves.
But, the invariable 50’s sensibility is how Lucas delivers his subtext. Despite the fact that the film takes place in the early 60’s, 50’s iconography drenches the scenery. The period-appropriate obsession with American hot rods constantly puts the viewer in an era where vehicles were used as the primary source of both entertainment and status. As the characters visit drive-ins and attend sock hops, they speculate about the identity of a particularly charismatic radio DJ, a local celebrity in a time where listening to the radio was what most accomplished in a night.
The fact that American Graffiti looks and feels so much like the 50’s while taking place in the 60’s helps the audience coalesce the ideas an entire generation of its children losing their naivete at the same moment. We see these kids try to make decisions that are seemingly life changing when you are young and in the moment, but we know that circumstances that they are ill-prepared for are facing them down in the near future. We finally see the full extent of that right before the credits roll and we learn the fate of the characters after the film. Some of them go on to normal lives (Steve becomes an insurance agent and Curt becomes a writer), but some of them face the bleaker aspects of existence in a modern world (John’s love of cars would kill him as he is killed by a drunk driver right as car culture begins to decline and Terry is presumed dead in Vietnam).
American Graffiti lets children of the 50’s live out their adolescence again while also acknowledging an intrinsic change in culture tied to events opposed to the change in decade society usually categorizes them under. It’s the calm of childhood contrasted by the offscreen storm of adulthood. Lucas’s film works as a perfect time capsule for the era but also as a representation of the transition into young adulthood in America. Whether it’s Vietnam or Covid-19, the country’s young adults have been thrust into turmoil right as their innocence is revoked. American Graffiti is a representation of what the last six decades would look like and what they will remain looking like as the American Empire stands.
American Graffiti is currently streaming on HBO MAX.