clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

American Graffiti, George Lucas’s last film before Star Wars, is the perfect end of summer movie

It was a turning point for the director, and for his characters, too.

an image from American Graffiti
Spend your last weekend of summer at Mel’s Drive-In with the American Graffiti gang.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for September 3 through 9 is American Graffiti (1973), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.

Labor Day is upon us, bringing much of the country one last long weekend of picnics, beach trips, rosé, and BBQs. Summer, according to tradition, ends on Monday.

Movies about Labor Day and the end of summer are a time-honored tradition in American cinema, from Stand By Me and Weekend at Bernie’s to last year’s Everybody Wants Some!! But perhaps no movie has captured the last lingering moments of summer — and their importance as a turning point in our lives — better than the 1973 comedy/drama American Graffiti, directed and co-written by George Lucas.

The movie, set in Modesto, California, in the early 1960s, is based on Lucas’s own life experiences as a teenager. Structured as a set of connected vignettes involving a group of teenagers on the last night of summer, the movie captures the way a big turning point in your life can make you feel both sad and exhilarated at the same time.

The movie follows two young men, Steve and Curt, on the night before they’re set to head off to college. They meet up with their friends Toad and John, and their run-ins with friends, enemies, girls, and their own futures form both the comedy and the drama of the film (which has a killer period soundtrack). The last night of summer isn’t a turning point for every character — but for some, it’s life-changing.

A scene from American Graffiti
American Graffiti is an ode to the last night of summer and the eve of the rest of your life.

American Graffiti marks a kind of turning point in Lucas’s career, too. It hit theaters on August 1, 1973, eight months after Lucas started work on the script that would become Star Wars (eventually retitled Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope). That film came out almost four years after American Graffiti, and the movie universe it spawned will undoubtedly be Lucas’s most lasting legacy.

But American Graffiti was a fitting preamble for it. Lucas produced the film through his newly formed company Lucasfilm, which became one of the world’s most influential film and TV production companies. His previous film, THX 1138, had been a critical hit but a box office flop, and so the success of American Graffiti — which didn’t just do well commercially, but also garnered five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture — was key to his continued career.

And just as John, Toad, Steve, and Curt come into their own during the night depicted in the movie, so American Graffiti was a watershed moment for Lucas as a filmmaker. The movie tested well with audiences, but Universal Pictures wasn’t so sure about Lucas and wanted to hire another editor to make a pass at recutting the film. A fight ensued that ended with Universal hanging on to the movie but planning to release it as a TV movie. But prior to its release, its reputation grew through word-of-mouth buzz generated by employees who saw and loved the film. The studio abandoned the TV plan for a limited theatrical release, and then expanded that release.

It paid off: The film became a sleeper hit, earned accolades and money, and established Lucas’s reputation as a filmmaker to watch. Eventually, the movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

From the distance of 44 years, though, what’s most striking upon watching American Graffiti is how well it holds up and how fun it is to watch. Like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out nine years later, American Graffiti is more of a collection of scenes than a story.

And that’s a good approximation for how real life feels, especially when you’re a teenager — at the time, things just seem to happen. It’s only in retrospect that you can see which moments in your life were most important. Maybe it’s the day you sit down to plan your future. Or maybe it’s just the last night of summer.

Watch the trailer for American Graffiti: