The Big Picture
- George Lucas’ early life in Modesto, California influenced his career as a filmmaker and inspired his film American Graffiti.
- American Graffiti was a personal and earnest film that showcased Lucas’ emotional depth and storytelling abilities.
- The themes of car racing and nostalgia in American Graffiti reflected Lucas’ own experiences and foreshadowed his future works, such as the pod race in Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace.
Removed from the context of being the creator of the single most dominant and culturally significant multimedia franchise in film history, George Lucas’ achievements in the 1970s as a director and writer alone were enough to make him an essential part of film history. Ironically, his success follows essentially the same path as his most beloved hero, Luke Skywalker. After Lucas’ first film, THX-1138 flopped at the box office and received dismissal reviews (although it generated a cult following in subsequent years), Lucas was facing the potential of being stuck in “director’s jail.” While this changed by the time that Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope hit theaters in 1977 and became the most successful film of all time, there was another film — American Graffiti — in between that proved that Lucas was more than just a cult sci-fi director catering to a niche crowd. Instead of looking to his imagination, Lucas told the most personal story of his career with a film directly inspired by his upbringing.
What Was George Lucas’ Early Life Like?
George Lucas was born in Modesto, California, where he was expected to inherit the same business that his father George Walton Lucas Sr. had owned for generations. Similar to Luke in the original A New Hope, young Lucas grew bored with the idea of spending the rest of his life doing the same thing every day. His primary interest had been racing cars (which would go on to inspire many elements of the Star Wars universe), but a near-fatal accident shattered his dreams of becoming a professional racer. At the tender age of eighteen, a hospitalized Lucas was forced to start investing in his future by studying and applying to schools. It was through a twist of luck that Lucas ended up choosing filmmaking as his field of study, as he eventually gained acceptance to the University of Southern California and began creating experimental short films alongside future collaborators like Walter Murch and Randall Kleiser. However, the memories of Modesto, his teenage angst, and the thrill of auto racing never left him; these would become the primary inspirations for his second film, 1973’s American Graffiti.
American Graffiti could be mistaken for an autobiography on Lucas’ part. Set in Modesto in 1962 (the same year that Lucas himself graduated from high school), the film follows a group of teenage friends who celebrate their last night together before they all head off in different directions. While they had intended to leave the next morning to go to their future school together, the lifelong best friends Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) are forced to reconsider their commitments. Like Lucas, they both expressed excitement about their futures, but struggle to leave the hometown of Modesto that they’ve known for their entire lives. Curt becomes obsessed with the voice of a girl he’s heard on the radio, and Steve doesn’t want to be tied to his hometown forever by remaining in a relationship with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams). The anxiety and trepidation they feel about committing themselves to an exciting future mirror what Lucas likely felt when he chose the art of filmmaking.
The emotional earnestness with which Curt and Steve express themselves is part of the reason that American Graffiti has become such a classic. Despite being on seemingly promising paths, both boys are still young and prone to making the sort of mistakes that any high school student would. Their destinies mirror the two alternate paths that Lucas could have gone on. While Curt can emerge from his late-night adventure with newfound knowledge and confidence, Steve is stuck in his obsession with Laurie after his aggressive behavior spurs her into spending time with the loud-mouthed bully Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford in one of his wildest 1970s roles). It’s revealed in the closing credits that Curt (like Lucas) went on to become a creative writer; Steve (who couldn’t get past his childhood ties to Modesto) got stuck in a generic job as an insurance agent.
How Does ‘American Graffiti’s Car Racing Mirror George Lucas’ Real Life?
Like George Lucas’ childhood, car racing plays a major role in the plot of American Graffiti. The drag-racing champion John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is perhaps the best stand-in for Lucas himself, as the irresponsible friend of Curt and Steves that is willing to put his life on the line for the sake of victory. Lucas showed maturity in analyzing himself through the way that John’s fate plays out. Even though John manages to win the race against Bob in the final act of the film, his victory is short-lived. A closing title card reveals that John is killed by a drunk driver a few years later as if Lucas was reflecting on what his life could have looked like if he had stuck to racing instead of going to school. Racing would continue to influence the rest of his films, and he directly homaged the same sequence with the pod race in Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace.
Lucas’ affection for the music of his era is also evident, as American Graffiti was one of the first films to feature a diegetic pop soundtrack. The music of The Platters, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, The Clovers, and Buster Brown among others that Lucas likely grew up with is incorporated into the narrative as the teens navigate their last night together. Lucas is often evident of Hollywood trends before they occur, and in many ways, his throwbacks to the hits of his childhood seem to have predicted the current fixation on nostalgia that Hollywood has become obsessed with.
Often, the greatest films of a director’s filmography are those in which they get to tell their own story, be it Francois Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows or Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. Although it’s hard to not see Star Wars as the defining achievement of Lucas’ career, American Graffiti proved that earnestness was his strong suit. The film that launched him as one of the pioneers of the genre wasn’t set in the galaxy, far, far away; in fact, it didn’t even leave his hometown.
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