Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Put some shama lama in your ding dong

I'm lost in the fifties tonight.

Back before he immersed himself in the galaxy far, far away with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, George Lucas made a charming little film called "American Graffiti."

I watched it again the other night. It may be the best slice of Americana ever put to film.

"Graffiti" focuses on the lives of four teenagers on the last night of summer 1962. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) is unsure of himself and his future. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) is the big man on campus, the high school star on the verge of leaving for college back east. Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith) is the proverbial nerd of the group. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the older rebel rouser, the cool hot shot with the fastest car in town.

The film follows these four characters around, looks in on their adventures, captures a few moments of the end of American innocence. They cruise town. They listen to the early rock-and-roll and doo wop music of the period. They chase girls. They order cherry Cokes at Mel's Drive In.

And that's about it. It doesn't sound like much. But "Graffiti" is so much more.

Lucas wanted to capture the feel of the era by including wall-to-wall pop music in the soundtrack. This worked well since his budget was limited and he had no money for a score.

So as Milner and the preteen Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) cruise their California town, you hear not only the Beach Boys and the Platters, but the constant chatter of disc jockey Wolfman Jack (who plays himself).

Le Mat and Phillips quietly steal the film away from the other talented actors. Their interaction is so well-done, so pleasing, so full of unadulterated joy, that one feels a sense of dejection when Milner finally takes Carol home to go face Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) in the film's climactic drag race.

Le Mat has one of the funniest lines in the film. Carol hears a Beach Boys tune come on the radio. She and Milner have a fight over listening to the song.

"Don't you think the Beach Boys are boss?" she asks.

"Ahhh, I don't like that surfin' shit," he says. Then responds with a telling line: "Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died."

Lucas picked 1962 for a reason. He wanted to capture a period in the American experience before the British Invasion, before the Kennedy assassination, before Vietnam, before Watergate. Back to when America was, at least on the surface, still naive and innocent. Back to when an idealistic teenager's dream was to meet the president.

The soundtrack is a true classic. The Platters. Chuck Berry. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. All the great doo wop groups. Wolfman Jack peppers it all with his trademark humor and bizarre antics.

The other great performance in the film belongs to Charles Martin Smith. Given the hardest role to play, Smith's Toad is both pathetic and lovable. His scenes with Debby (Candy Clark) are full of laughter and of a certain awkwardness that comes with puberty and the pettiness of high school.

Lucas brought his A-game as a director. He and visual consultant Haskell Wexler chose to give the film an almost documentary look. This works well with both the script and the effect Lucas was trying to achieve.

I may be the only one in the universe who thinks this, but "American Graffiti" is George Lucas' best film. The "Star Wars" epics are what they are. But this film means something. It touches a nerve, captures an ethos, reminds you why movies can be so important.

"Graffiti" stays with you. It leaves you with moments to remember and savor when you need them. Steve and Laurie (Cindy Williams) at the sock hop. "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." Curt and the Pharoahs. The car salesman in the big rocking chair. Toad puking his guts out.

Alas the lights come up and you find yourself back in 2005. Gone are the poodle skirts, the muscle cars and the drive-ins. Much from "American Graffiti" is indeed no longer with us.

And the world seems darker somehow.

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