"The whole strip is shrinking. Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, it'd take you a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really somethin'."
— John Milner, being nostalgic in an already nostalgic movie
Think Dazed and Confused set in The Fifties (or pre-hippie-era Sixties if you want to be technical about it).American Graffiti is a 1973 Coming of Age film based on director George Lucas' memories of growing up in the 1950s and early '60s, and he thus manages to cram in as much Popular History as possible. Of course, he was one of the first to do this. The film was produced by Lucas's friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who was just coming off his success with directing The Godfather.Set in small-town California in 1962, it follows a bunch of High School-age kids (and a couple of college-bound recent graduates) as they spend the last night of summer vacation goofing around, getting into trouble and contemplating their futures while listening to Nothing But Hits. No, there really is no plot. Get over it.A huge hit for Universal, American Graffiti established Lucas' box-office bona fides and kicked the already-existing Fifties nostalgia boom of The Seventies into high gear. The film is also notable for its cast of soon-to-be famous young actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers, MacKenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford. Also featured is famous radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack playing a version of himself.The movie has a lesser-known sequel, 1979's More American Graffiti, which was set in The Sixties and supposedly "made all of ten cents".This film provides examples of:
Anachronic Order: Extreme aversion, as Lucas actually filmed all of the scenes in chronological order. Ron Howard took this as a slur on their professionalism until Lucas explained that he wanted the characters to look increasingly tired as the night went on.
Berserk Button: When Laurie rebuffs Steve's advances in the car, he irritatedly tells her, "Don't be so damn self-righteous with me, after all that stuff you told me about watching your brother." She doesn't react well.
Hassle-Free Hotwire: Toad attempts one of these to retrieve Steve's stolen car, but it backfires when the thieves catch him in the act. Ultimately, it's implied he simply took the keys back off the thieves after John beats them up.
The Hero's Journey: Seriously, if you follow Curt's storyline - spending the entire night trying to find a beautiful mystery woman - you'd be amazed at how closely it hews to Campbellian tropes. Up to and including the meeting with Wolfman Jack as a magus figure presiding over the teenage nightlife and who grants Curt the chance to meet that mystery woman.
No Communities Were Harmed: While the name of the town is never given, it's meant to be a stand-in for George Lucas' own hometown of Modesto, California. (The film's Working Title was Another Slow Night in Modesto.) However, most of the shooting was done in Petaluma and other Bay Area locations.
No Name Given: The official, credited name of Suzanne Somers' character is "Blonde in T-Bird".
Nothing But Hits: The whole movie is scored from end to end with Fifties pop hits. Notably absent is Elvis, whose licensing proved too expensive. (As it was, a large chunk of Lucas' budget for the film went toward acquiring music rights for the soundtrack.) Later Lucas would finally afford the rights to use an Elvis song, "Hound Dog" in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, set in 1957.
Possibly to compensate for the fact that the film took place in the early sixties, but pretty much was the fifties; The Beach Boys (who came to prominence in the early '60s) are heard on the radio and even discussed by John and Carol. Showing the changing attitudes of the early '60s, the jaded and older John hates their surf music and bemoans what is happening to rock after the 1959 death of Buddy Holly, while the younger Carol thinks they are "boss".
Ironically, that had the opposite effect. Many people now think of surf music (and by extension, all music from before 1964) as '50s music (when in reality there were only 3 surf songs released prior to 1960, and they were more like doo-wop anyway).
Justified, as these songs were still only a few years old in 1962 and received occasional airplay on the radio (the "golden oldies" phenomenon) and American Bandstand.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: With Dreyfuss opting out of More American Graffiti, we're introduced in that film to Curt and Laurie's previously-unmentioned younger brother Andy.
Teacher/Student Romance: It is implied at the school's dance that one of these is occurring between a male teacher and a female student, but since the characters aren't really important, it's never delved into.