While George Lucas is rightfully known as the genius behind "The Star Wars" empire (at least until he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012), he also once created another all-time classic. That film is the more modest "American Graffiti," which is as good as anything in the Skywalker saga – just in a different way.
The coming-of-age comedy-drama takes place over the course of several rollicking hours in Modesto, California. It's a balmy fall night in 1962, and the last one for recent high school grads Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) before heading off to college back east. It will turn out to be quite the eventful night, too, as the duo plus Steve's girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), nerdy friend Terry Charles Martin Smith) and racer pal John (Paul Le Mat) cruise the strip, meet new allies and rivals, celebrate past glories and contemplate the days ahead.
The film was a massive success upon release and has continued to prove influential. Star Ron Howard would later become the director of movies such as "Apollo 13" and "Willow" (produced by Lucas), and makes his transition here from childhood actor on "The Andy Griffith Show" to teen hero, a part he'd continue to portray on TV's "Happy Days." Richard Dreyfuss is the everyman of "Graffiti," two years before he'd star in Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." Cindy Williams would carry on her '60s sweetheart persona on the TV show "Laverne & Shirley." And Harrison Ford teams up with George Lucas for the first time in the role of badboy car racer Bob Falfa, a warm-up to his Han Solo in "Star Wars."
"American Graffiti" also heralded a new kind of music approach, one that substitutes wall-to-wall songs for a traditional score. The triple platinum, nostalgia-drenched soundtrack album features 41 period hits, with everything from the Beach Boys' "All Summer Long" to The Platters' "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" to Buddy Holly's "Maybe Baby" to Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" to tons more jukebox favorites.
The cumulative effect is an entertainment that works for anyone, whether you were alive in '62 or decades from conception. Like "Star Wars," it's a tale for the ages, and paved the way for that space opera, as George Lucas used his profits from "Graffiti" to further establish his filmmaking dynasty up in Northern California (including what would become Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and more amazing companies).
Made on a budget of $770,000, "Graffiti" recouped more than $140 million. It currently rates 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and is considered one of American Film Institute's Top 100 movies of all time. If you haven't seen it already, or if you're in the mood for a happy day, check it out streaming now.
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