Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Suzanne Sommers
George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Where were you in '62?
This Academy Award-nominated classic, voted one of the American Film Institute's top 100 Films Of All Time, features the coming-of-age of four teenagers on their last summer night before college. Rediscover drag racing, Inspiration Point and drive-ins all over again in this nostalgic look back at the early '60s. The incredible soundtrack brings you the most memorable rock'n'roll hits of the era. Directed by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, this classic stars Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Suzanne Somers, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack and Mackenzie Phillips. Capture the heart of America's last age of innocence with American Graffiti.
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Runtime: 112 min.
Release Date: 1/10/2012
• U-Control Interactive Features
• “The Making of American Graffiti” Documentary
• Screen Tests
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American Graffiti [Blu-Ray] (1973)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 25, 2012)
In the decades since 1977’s Star Wars, George Lucas has filled many roles. Producer, writer, mega-multimedia-mogul: with the possible exception of his buddy Steven Spielberg, it would be difficult to find a more successful filmmaker than Lucas.
Star Wars clearly changed Lucas' life, but not in the way one would have predicted. Instead of just using his clout to pick and choose projects carefully, he took his newfound power and left his previous life behind the camera as a director.
Pop quiz: how many films did Lucas direct between Star Wars in 1977 and The Phantom Menace in 1999? Answer: none.
Not only do many people forget that Lucas started out as a director, they also frequently fail to remember that Star Wars wasn't his first hit movie in that role: back in 1973, he did tremendously well with the vaguely autobiographical smash American Graffiti. Actually, both Star Wars and American Graffiti share quite a lot in common. Lucas had a difficult time getting backing for both, studio faith in each was low, and the pair received a fantastic reaction from the general public.
Of course, while Star Wars spawned an unimaginably successful franchise, the most enduring legacy of American Graffiti may end up being the fact it allowed Lucas to make Star Wars. That's not to say that it's not a fine film, and one that broke a fair amount of ground. Certainly, it was all that. However, it simply seems that American Graffiti is a movie that largely has left the public consciousness.
Although American Graffiti has seemed to transform from smash film to historical footnote, it clearly was a very important film that cast shadows. As Lucas notes in his somewhat self-congratulatory manner, the film's story construction was unusual for its time in that four separate, fairly unrelated narratives took place simultaneously and were edited together. This is no big deal for modern viewers; we saw the same thing week after week on Seinfeld. However, somebody had to do it first, and while I don't know if American Graffiti was truly the initial time this format was used, it most likely was the film that introduced it to much of the public.
American Graffiti also has been acclaimed because of all the notable careers it launched. Really, only Ron Howard had achieved any significant success prior to American Graffiti through his role as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. However, even he needed the boost this film gave him since he was having trouble making the transition from child star to adult actor. As far as the rest of the cast goes, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Suzanne Somers, and Harrison Ford all got their "big breaks" from the success of American Graffiti.
The issue I take with the film's reputation as a breeding ground for stars comes from the fact that most of these actors really haven't had hugely successful careers. Clearly Harrison Ford became by far the biggest star of the group. Indeed, he qualifies as one of the most popular actors of all-time. Although he's hit more than a few trouble spots, Richard Dreyfuss has made a solid career for himself, as has Ron Howard, although he only did so by making a Lucas-esque change. Howard experienced much success as a star of Happy Days for many years, but his acting days seem long gone as he has made a transformation into big-time director.
As for the rest of the group, their careers all had a high or two after
American Graffiti but nothing to rival the long-term success of those three. Williams, Phillips, and Somers all scored with long-running sitcoms, while Smith, Le Mat, and Clark have each made one or two semi-memorable films. Other than that, however, none has accomplished that much. Really, all of these actors clearly peaked back in the 1970s, and none has done much since then.
At this point, I've killed many electronic trees with my rambling discourse and you may have started to wonder, "What about the damned movie? Is it any good?!" I'm glad you asked!
Yeah, American Graffiti is a solid film, but I don't think it quite lives up to any kind of "legendary" status. Overall, it's a much more than competent effort. Of the actors, I thought the only real standouts were Dreyfuss, Smith, and Clark. Dreyfuss shines in a role where he kept his infamous multiple mannerisms under check; for once, it appeared that he was running the show, not his various tics. Really, Dreyfuss creates the only fully realized character in the group, which was no mean feat, considering how many different roles are juggled by the script.
Smith provides an endearing and amusing turn as a typical "nerd," and Clark... well, Clark's something else altogether. Of the entire cast, she was the only one to receive an Academy Award nomination. During my first couple viewings of American Graffiti, I thought that was a joke. Clark can seem very stiff and artificial, much like human puppet Melanie Griffith; I thought she was terrible.
However, since I've seen the movie a few more times, her acting has revealed more to me than I'd previously observed. I wouldn't say there's any real depth there - there isn't much available from the character - but she displays good timing and a personality spark that wasn't readily apparent.
The rest of the cast performs well but not exceptionally. Except for Le Mat, I think, as I feel his work is the worst and hammiest of the bunch. He just seems to be shouting his lines instead of reading them for most of the movie. He makes a more overtly comic presence than the other actors, which is to the detriment of his role. Le Mat simply tries too hard to make an impression; as such, the impression he makes is negative.
While I find American Graffiti to be an interesting and enjoyable film, I do think that it's rather slow. I hate to admit it, but my eyes intermittently gazed upon the display for my Blu-ray player, and I'd think, "That's it? This thing still has an hour (or however long) to go?" It's not that the film's boring, but it does take a very leisurely pace. Maybe it's just my MTV-addled attention span, but I definitely felt somewhat impatient at times during the movie.
That said, American Graffiti does make for a sweet little Valentine to a long gone time and place. Since I was negative five years old during the film's era of 1962, I obviously can't relate to its accuracy, but I can enjoy that little glimpse into the recent past. All that's largely irrelevant in the scheme of things, however, since the film's mainly about changes and transitions that we all go through. From that point of view, anyone over 20 should be able to relate to the characters and their experiences.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture C/ Audio C/ Bonus B+
American Graffiti appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. While the movie looked better than on DVD, it didn’t fare as well as it could.
Granted, this is always going to be a problematic presentation. Graffiti was shot on the cheap, so it should be soft and messy at times; that’s just part of what it is.
So I was fine with the occasional softness and mushiness that resulted from the original photography. Unfortunately, the transfer tried too hard to semi-modernize the image, and that was an issue. It used digital noise reduction to reduce grain, and that took some detail with it. The film already had softness issues inherent to it, so the added loss of resolution from the DNR didn’t help. Apparently to “fix” this, the transfer then underwent some artificial sharpening, so expect to see mild edge haloes throughout the movie.
All of this left Graffiti as an up and down presentation. At times, definition looked quite good, but other shots were unnatural and soft, with distractions from those edge haloes. No issues with jaggies or shimmering occurred, at least, and the transfer eliminated virtually all print flaws.
Colors also appeared erratic. Some shots demonstrated nice vivacity and depth, but others looked rather flat and lifeless. Blacks tended to be somewhat drab and muddy, while shadows were generally dense and thick.
The low budget nature of the flick led to some of these issues, as the filmmakers clearly didn’t have money to execute the shots as well as they’d have liked. For instance, shots of the Toad and Debbie at the lake suffered from some of the worst “day for night” photography I’ve seen. Nonetheless, the combination of iffy source material and some unfortunate transfer tools made this one a “C”; it had some very nice moments but just wasn’t as good a representation of the film as I’d like.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack of American Graffiti was something of a mess, though I suspect the original audio was mostly to blame. The quality of the material came across the worst, with only one exception: speech. Despite a few edgy, tinny lines, most of the dialogue was pretty warm and crisp.
Otherwise, audio was problematic, largely due to a heavy layer of reverb. That factor rendered both music and effects as rather metallic and artificial. Little ever sounded natural, as the songs and effects were distant and without any heft. To some degree, I understood the echo for the omnipresent radio broadcasts, as the movie wanted those to sound like they came from passing cars. However, everything else worked the same way. It got so bad that when a train passed, I thought it was supposed to come from the radio!
In terms of soundfield, Graffiti showed a broad mix, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Occasionally I noticed some fairly well-localized material – like cars that went from one spot to another – but much of the information seemed poorly placed. The elements came from an unspecified, general space in the spectrum and didn’t demonstrate accurate locations. Speech also could bleed from the center to the sides. The surrounds contributed bland reinforcement much of the time, though they occasionally offered some effective unique information. This wasn’t a terrible mix, but I didn’t think it held up well over the last 39 years.
How did the Blu-ray compare to original DVD from 1998? Audio was a little clearer, but not a lot; this was silk purse/sow’s ear territory, and there didn’t seem to be much that could be done to improve the track.
Visuals offered a definite improvement – they just weren’t as good as they could have been. Still, the Blu-ray was cleaner and better defined than the messy DVD. Even with all its concerns, the Blu-ray was a much better representation of the film.
The Blu-ray’s extras mix old and new components. We launch with a 1990s documentary called The Making of American Graffiti. This one-hour, 18-minute and 10-second program combines movie clips, archival materials and new (circa 1998) interviews with director George Lucas, producer Francis Ford Coppola, co-writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, sound montage and re-recording supervisor Walter Murch, casting director Fred Roos, visual consultant Haskell Wexler, and actors Paul Le Mat, Harrison Ford, Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Ann Quinlan, and Suzanne Somers.
“Making” starts with the flick’s origins and development, aspects of the script and autobiographical elements, the use of music, casting, shooting the movie and aspects of the characters, locations and camerawork, performances and Lucas’s attitude on the set, post-production, and the film’s reception.
“Making” provides a pretty full glimpse of the flick’s creation in this excellent program. I’m delighted to see so many of the film’s principals – especially all the actors – and we learn a ton about the movie. This becomes a truly enjoyable and insightful piece.
Under U-Control, two features appear. “The Music of American Graffiti” offers simple credits; when a song plays, we get some notes about it. This is a decent but fairly inconsequential addition.
More intriguing, we locate a video commentary from George Lucas. This is essentially a traditional running, screen-specific chat; it places footage of Lucas in the lower left-hand corner, but that factor adds nothing, so treat it like a standard audio commentary. Lucas discusses the opening credits, autobiographical elements and themes, story/characters, influences and historical components, music, cast and performances, sets and locations, photography, audio and editing, and a few other production elements.
Despite a little inevitable repetition from the documentary, Lucas provides a solid commentary here. We get a nice overview of the relevant topics as well as good insights into the era and Lucas’s mindset as he made the film. Expect a lively, engaging chat.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we get some Screen Tests. These cover four options: Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Paul Le Mat (12:08), Ron Howard and Cindy Williams (2:18), Mackenzie Phillips and Paul Le Mat (6:47) and Charles Martin Smith (1:41). The first try-out also includes an actor as Terry; not only does the disc fail to credit him, but also it masks his face. All of these are a bit clunky in terms of dialogue and performance, but they’re cool to see.
Though I think American Graffiti sags at times, it still offers an entertaining piece of work. The film provides a warm and nostalgic look at teen life but doesn’t become sappy or condescending. The Blu-ray boasts a small but strong collection of supplements, but picture seems overly processed, and the audio appears lackluster, though the latter suffers mostly from the deficits of the source material. While this becomes the best Graffiti on the market, the fact it comes with flaws makes it a disappointment.
To rate this film visit the Collector's Edition review of AMERICAN GRAFFITI