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Five Reasons American Graffiti Made Us Teenagers of ’62

on July 29, 2013, 12:00am


“Where were you in ‘62?” For a whole swath of readers, the answer is probably “Not alive,” or at least, not old enough to have lived out the classic American teenage existence captured by George Lucas in his 1973 Oscar-nominated film, American Graffiti. Set on the metaphorical last night of an era – the innocent ‘50s – the film followed a group of friends equipped with high school diplomas, a sense that something was shifting in their lives, and not much else. It was their last chance to cruise, to hit the drive-in diner, to live soundtracked to the radio, and to meet that beautiful, mysterious girl in the white car.

This Thursday, Lucas’s iconic coming-of-age masterpiece turns 40 years old, and the nostalgia hasn’t let up. Even now, the thought of attending a sock hop dance, slow dancing to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, or eating drive-thru to the sounds of Del Shannon is shared by many Americans both young and old. So, regardless of where you were in ‘62, we thought we’d take a look at why American Graffiti made us teenagers of the era — and still does.

1. Radio

Seconds into the opening credits, a radio babbles until the dial hits XERB, a station blasting “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. From there on out, the radio soundtracks the night. It’s the connective tissue that holds together the four story lines of Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), John Milner (Paul Le Mat), Terry “Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), transitioning the viewer from car to car throughout the night. Radio itself is like a character of its own. When resident nerd Toad realizes his car’s been stolen, he makes this deduction: “The radio’s gone! That means the car’s gone!”

2. “Something Has Happened to Me Tonight That’s Going To Change Everything”

Isn’t that the classic teenage fantasy? To suddenly have the upper hand, to snag the cute guy or girl, to be deemed “cool?” For the characters in the movie, no one makes it through the night unchanged. They all have something on the line, but it’s the ones who are really chasing hope — e.g. Curt and his dream girl or Toad and his slim chance at an elevated social status — who get the biggest breaks. It’s not an easy night, though. Take Toad: he loses his car just about as fast as he gets it and gets his ass kicked by a couple greasers, but he still gets the girl in what winds up being a rocky but real shot at teenage wish fulfillment. And with the film packed into one night, there’s a Cinderella-esque sense that the magic will be gone in the morning.

3. Wolfman Jack

Some say he broadcasts from Mexico, others think that he flew in circles in an airplane, spinning the hits with his signature howl. Wolfman Jack was the kids’ favorite disc jockey. He was wild-sounding, fast-talking, and not overly popular with parents. What’s more, he had a distinct personality, a presence that functioned as the narrator to their nights and the last guardian of their teenage years. He’s long gone from modern radio, but in ‘62, Wolfman Jack had your back. He was Curt’s best chance of finding the blonde in the white car, and an unexpected push toward growing up, as the indecisive teenager wrestled with the prospect of college in the East.

4. Shared Experience

From its first appearance, Mel’s Drive-In is drenched in a reverby echo that flows out of every rolled-down window. If the car’s parked, then the radio is on and tuned to one station. “The Wolfman is everywhere.” But more importantly, it’s the music that’s everywhere. From “Maybe Baby” to “Runaway” to “I Only Have Eyes for You”, they were the songs whose power was ubiquitous to the point of total absorption. Even if greaser John Milner complained, “Rock ‘n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.” While there’s a certain futility in lamenting bygone eras and irrevocable changes, it’s interesting to consider how nowadays even the biggest, most-hyped songs and albums can still go unheard.

5. Cars

You can’t talk about American Graffiti without talking about the cars: the chrome, the fins, the upholstery (Toad’s date has distinct preferences regarding upholstery, FYI). They were beautiful. But besides that, in the movie they work like mobile gathering places with backseats as big as couches. The Washington Post ran a piece a few months back about how fewer 16-year-olds were getting their driver’s licenses on time because the advent of online communities had somewhat chilled the motivation to get wheels and leave the house to be with friends. Cruising culture meant that the characters might not have been going anywhere specifically, but yakking endlessly in the car and shouting to each other at red lights was their version of pinging the network.

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