May 2011

American GraffitiA Brilliant Blu-ray Portrait of a More Innocent Time

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Format: Blu-ray

Overall Enjoyment
Picture Quality
Sound Quality

A long time ago, 1973 to be exact, before he became rich and famous, fledgling director George Lucas made one of the best teen coming-of-age pictures of all time. He got everything right -- not just the costumes and hair, but the plot as well. Back in those innocent days, at the dawn of the 1960s, life was simpler and graduating teens really faced just one important choice: go to college or stay at home, get a job, and hang out on the strip. This is the decision Steve (Ron Howard, billed as "Ronny") and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) must make in one night as if their flight were leaving the next morning. One moves on, and the other changes his mind and stays.

The strip might have been a block, or a mile, or a particular road, but at that point in time there was always some place to drive your car (or your dad's car), show off, and be cool. My strip growing up was pretty much an oversized circle around the drive-in restaurant. If you didn't have a car, you wanted a friend who did so you could ride shotgun. The strip in American Graffiti is composed of a lot of city blocks, and Lucas gets all of this so right it's uncanny. Older viewers who've been there will think they've traveled through time; younger viewers can see things like they really were "back then." Some of the specifics: slicked-back hair, diner waitresses wearing bellhop caps carrying orders right to your car on roller skates, suped-up cars, a rock band that wears red blazers and ties, and waiting outside the liquor store when you're 17, looking for an adult who might buy booze for you. And oh yes, the mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a white T-Bird.

Lucas was initially unable to market the film, but Universal finally took a chance on it, and it made many, many times what it cost, giving Lucas enough bankroll to work on Star Wars. The cast included largely unknown young actors like Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, and Paul Le Mat, who have all gone on to have excellent careers.

The Blu-ray Disc shows all of the period details in a focused and detailed picture. At the beginning it's a little too detailed and exhibits some edge enhancement, but it quickly calms down to normal grain and definition. Fans won't be disappointed. The chrome on the cars and the neon on the buildings really sizzle and pop. The all-important period rock music sounds just great, and the new mix occasionally mixes some of it to the rear, as in the hop dance sequence. A nifty feature in the U-Control extras lets you click while a scene is playing and get an onscreen readout of the song, including its title and the artists performing it.

The rest of the extras include a moderately in-depth production featurette, a handful of screen tests, and a picture-in-picture commentary from Lucas. American Graffiti defines a time shortly before the assassination of John F. Kennedy when events in America were more innocent. American Graffiti conjures a longing to go back there, along with the realization that it has to remain a past dream.

Be sure to watch for: The opening credits appear over a daytime shot of Mel's Diner, which looks drab like any other burger joint. But at the beginning of chapter 3, accompanied by the Crests' "Sixteen Candles" and illuminated by several hundred feet of neon, it looks like the place you want to be at: a teen palace. It's a breathtaking shot and moment, well rendered on the Blu-ray.

. . . Rad Bennett