7 Ways George Lucas’ American Graffiti Changed Hollywood & Movies Forever

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Summary

  • American Graffiti changed Hollywood forever by being the first film to center on youth culture and capture the essence of the ’60s rock ‘n’ roll scene.
  • The financial failure of THX 1138 pushed George Lucas to write American Graffiti, which helped launch his career and eventually led to the creation of Star Wars.
  • American Graffiti served as a time capsule of a carefree existence, capturing a time that no longer exists and making viewers yearn for a nostalgic past.

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Before Star Wars became a phenomenon, 1973’s American Graffiti put a young George Lucas on the map, all while changing Hollywood forever. Inspired by Lucas’ own life, the coming-of-age classic seamlessly blends comedy and drama elements. Although it wasn’t Lucas’ first foray into feature-film directing, American Graffiti certainly reshaped his trajectory, thanks in large part to the film’s producer and long-time champion Francis Ford Coppola. In fact, of all the movies George Lucas directed, this one is still at the top.

Upon its release, American Graffiti was something of an indie sleeper hit. Not only did the movie about street racing and summertime misadventures top the box office, it also thoroughly impressed critics. Even 50 years later, it’s a must-watch flick, not just because of its brilliant of-the-moment storytelling, but because of the way it changed the course of moviemaking as a whole. Given everything that American Graffiti inspired and everything George Lucas went on to make, it’s hard to imagine cinematic history without the iconic film.

7 American Graffiti Was The First Film To Center What Defined Youth Culture

American Graffiti road race

For good reason, American Graffiti is very intentional about its setting. Meant to unfold in Modesto, California, the film emphasizes the year it’s set in too: 1962. The movie allows Lucas to get deeply personal, which is something that’s not necessarily part of his later works, like the franchise-spawning space opera that is 1977’s Star Wars. Notably, the movie takes the teens at its center seriously. That might sound simple, but, at the time, very few films with mainstream reach captured youth culture. Told in vignettes over the course of a night, American Graffiti captures the essence of cruising and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll culture.

RELATED: 10 Coming-Of-Age Comedies To Watch If You Love American Graffiti

6 After The Financial Failure Of THX 1138, It Helped Launch George Lucas’ Career

THX-1138-6

Produced by Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola, THX 1138 marks George Lucas’ feature-film directorial debut. Unlike the later Star Wars, the 1971 film feels more like the social sci-fi popularized by cautionary tales like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A continuation of the student film Lucas worked on in the late ’60s, THX 1138 is set in a dystopian future that sees android police and mandatory emotion-suppressing drugs keeping the public in check.

A commercial flop, Lucas’ debut feature pales in comparison to the vividly realized sci-fi works that hit theaters around the same time, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. While THX 1138 has a cult following now, it didn’t set Lucas up for success at the time. Luckily, Coppola had been pressuring Lucas to write a coming-of-age drama — something more personal — and his sci-fi box office bomb pushed the young director to pen American Graffiti, which went on to be a box office success.

5 Without American Graffiti, We Might Not Have Harrison Ford’s Han Solo

Harrison Ford in a car in American Graffiti

While American Graffiti helped launch the careers of leads Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard, its impressive teen film ensemble cast also put George Lucas in touch with some future collaborators. Notably, Mark Hamill, who would later be cast as Luke Skywalker, auditioned for a role in the movie. Although that didn’t pan out, American Graffiti did help put Harrison Ford on the map. At the time, Ford was focusing on a carpentry career, but agreed to take on the bit part so long as he didn’t have to cut his hair into a flattop look.

As a compromise, Ford donned a Stetson cap in the film, though that wouldn’t be the last hat he’d wear for a Lucasfilm production. Ultimately, cinephiles have American Graffiti to thank for Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Although Lucas’ coming-of-age hit was impressive in its own right, it certainly didn’t hurt that Coppola allowed the studio to market the picture with the tagline “from the man who gave you The Godfather,” which only helped raise the profile of the young ensemble cast.

4 American Graffiti Laid The Foundation For The Coming-Of-Age High School Movie Genre

Wolfman Jack spins the tunes in American Graffiti.

The story of American Graffiti unfolds over the course of one summer night in small-town California. Although its focus on car culture is certainly of yesteryear, many of the film’s other hallmarks remain important in the coming-of-age and high school movie genres. The film meanders a bit, capturing that summer wistfulness that so defines the adventures of one’s teenage years. This kind of narrative — and the movie’s killer rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack — would go on to inspire other now-classic films, including Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

3 George Lucas Uses American Graffiti To Document History

Ron Howard in American Graffiti

The film poster for American Graffiti very pointedly asks, “Where were you in ’62?” Lucas’ focus on that particular year is crucial. A love letter to the director’s youth, American Graffiti is also set on a precipice of American history, with 1962 falling just before several momentous events. That is, it’s set just before the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the sexual revolution, and women’s liberation — all cultural moments that reshaped American society.

The movie also unfolds before JFK’s assassination and Vietnam War, violent events that are often seen as points of no return. That is, American Graffiti captures a time that no longer exists. More than that, it’s a time capsule of what felt like a carefree existence, at least for the young white men in Lucas’ circle.

2 American Graffiti Bankrolled Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope

Award Ceremony - Star Wars A New Hope

After the financial failure of THX 1138, it seemed unlikely that Lucas would get the chance to helm another sci-fi film, let alone a big-budget endeavor like 1977’s Star Wars. Thankfully for Lucas — and for all the fans of his galaxy far, far away — American Graffiti changed the director’s trajectory.

RELATED: The Force Awakens Copied George Lucas’ Biggest Mistake From A New Hope, Despite 38 Years Of Learning

Shot on an indie budget, the movie, which was the first made by the filmmaker’s Lucasfilm studio, topped the box office and even garnered an Oscar nomination. With his newfound success and notoriety, Lucas was able to fund Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, a film that changed the cinema landscape in its own right.

1 American Graffiti Is Nostalgia Cinema At Its Finest

An image of Mel's Drive-In in American Graffiti

Since its inception, Hollywood has exploited cinema’s ability to capture nostalgia better than almost any other medium. Nonetheless, some films capture the universal wistfulness better than others; American Graffiti is one of them. Given its narrative — teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, summer on the edge of autumn, and America on the precipice of a new way of life — American Graffiti is a joyride tinged with sadness.

A movie that takes place in one day, American Graffiti is certainly sweet and sentimental, though it’s also shot with the knowledge that what it’s capturing has come to an end. Nostalgia cinema at its finest, American Graffiti makes contemporary viewers yearn for a past they never had — and for a perfection that never existed outside of George Lucas’ adulterated memories.