There’s no doubt in my mind that it stands as a masterpiece of cinema. Beyond Star Wars, this is what George Lucas will be remembered for. You really should see it if you haven’t—a better dramatic exposition of American teenage youth culture circa 1955-1963 isn’t to be found, and Walter Murch’s ingenious employment of open-air sounds, especially rock n’ roll radio ones, is so artful that you’ll have no objection to the credits calling it a “sound montage.” Armed with this continual flow of echo-ey sounds and a fleet of vintage cars, Lucas and co. try to capture the essence of teen-aged dreams on a summer night in provincial America. Ideal for August viewing at the drive-in.
Upon its release in 1973, at least if we can judge by a famous Pauline Kael review, American Graffiti was taken as the most telling manifestation of a growing appetite for nostalgia. In retrospect, we can see that it was an early example of a particular type of nostalgia, the baby-boomer kind, that while in one sense became over-explored and rather tiresome a long time ago, in another became the most widely-held and standard-issue pop-culture nostalgia. Things like my recent list of 76 rock n’ roll songs circa 1953-1969 might stand as evidence of how Generation X-ers and Millenials have often made that nostalgia their own.
The film was certainly pitched as fond remembrance of a simpler time, place, and stage of life. The loving recreation of 50s/early-60s teen culture is central, and the film scrupulously confines all of its action within a medium-sized town in California’s San Joaquin Valley (which we eventually learn is Lucas’s hometown of Modesto). And it does work as movie fun, from its opening bars of “Rock around the Clock,” through its spotlighted prank-scene set to Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” at its center—baby, someday your name will be in lights–, down to its playing the Beach Boys’ nifty “All Summer Long” over the credits. There are plenty of fun scenes and humor throughout, and especially in the Terry-the-nerd-courts-Debbie-the-pop-culture-airhead “subplot.”
But just beneath the fun is a melancholic undertow, and a determination to expose the contradictions, dare we say tragic contradictions, of this teenaged world. Beginning a film with a song that calls for the good-times to go on perpetually, and ending it with one that only seems to do likewise is no accident. Apparently innocuous but in fact highly symbolic use of pop songs runs throughout the film–“Runaway” for introducing the teen scene on the town’s cruisin’ strip, “Crying in the Chapel” for the entering the radio station, etc.
In interviews about film, which he both wrote and directed, Lucas indicates he had been pretty serious about hot-rods as a youth, and had planned on a career in auto-racing or mechanics until other dreams beckoned. He says he later realized in an anthropology class that the cruisin’ culture of his youth was a kind of mating ritual, and with its fading away in the late 60s, he felt a desire to document it.
But American Graffiti has more in its sights than car culture or Modesto-specific remembrance. It wants to celebrate, document, but also to think about the entire rock n’ roll youth culture of that era. That leads the film into some classic coming of age questions regarding young romance and one’s connection to one’s home-place, but also into a rather specifically 20th-century question: what was rock n’ roll? And on this question we have to, for rock songbook purposes, initially take our discussion beyond American Graffiti itself.
The was in that question is key. Change the question to a present tense one, and it becomes relatively easy to answer, because it loses the difficult socio-musico dimension, and becomes a purely musical matter. Rock n’ roll is a particular style of good-time dance music with such-and-such characteristics and such-and-such parameters. For that reason it is not the same thing as rock, even if it sometimes gets blended with it, as I’ve tried to explain from early on in the Songbook. Yes, it originated in 1950s America, but whether you’re from Memphis, Tennessee or Taegu, South Korea, you could be making music in this style today, given the equipment, talent, and motivation, just as your descendants could a hundred years hence. Simple as that.
But the past-tense framing of the question, which is that of the film, focuses on the fact that a particular form of youth culture became closely connected to the rock n’ roll music, and that by the end of the 60s both it and the music have radically changed. At that moment, the older way of teenaged life seems in need of documentation while the memory of it was fresh. And in need of contemplation: what was it about, why was that rock n’ roll music at the center of it, why have both of these changed, and can we bring their most cherished aspects back, at least in some form? The was question contains all of those questions, and especially does so in 1973.
This is not just a rock-intellectual thing. This is the kind of framing of the question that has mattered more to the audience and artists. A quick run through the memory-stack recalls that the earliest what-is-it statements about rock n’ roll concern the dance-ability of its back-beat, its special suitability for the school days set, and whether or not it is here to stay. The early rock n’ roll of course does not provide much of its own talk about what it is, and such that it does hits a tone somewhere between sincere self-understanding and exuberant salesmanship. Early in 1964 we do hear a slightly more self-reflective note in a Beach Boys song asking us to remember, the guys who gave us rock n’ roll, so that by then we can see that R n’ R is understood as something which the teenaged “we” has, something integral to who we are, but which should be thought of as having an early stage distinct from its contemporary one. And yet, within just a few years, and after what initially appeared to be an intensification of interest and development, there will be a lot of wondering about whether it has been put aside, and whether one can return to it.
That is, there are a number of late 60s and early 70s songs that seem to be recognizing that it’s been a long time since I rock and rolled and that are expressing a desire to do it again. But could one, despite everything that had happened, despite all the computations one is aware of by the dawn of the 70s, nonetheless just return to dancin’ to the rock and roll station? Or would one thus risk falling into a sickly longing to revisit some “Drive-In Saturday Night” scene, an instinct better kept reserved for moments of self-aware “Starman”-like mythology-making? Or against Bowie’s take, could one just charge ahead and get the rock rollin’ again, like The Modern Lovers, or what the heck, like guys like The Steve Miller Band? Or could the problem be solved by just cutely dismissing it, by insisting that 50s rock n’ roll was simply rock when it was young, and thus a permanently available mode within a larger family of music that’s all just only rock n’ roll. That way, one wouldn’t be troubled by worries about whether it’s secretly dead?
Well, greater clarity, albeit of a dogmatic kind, eventually gets offered by our rock critics, and particularly as we move away from that early 70s moment of uncertainty, to the theories developed to explain what the early rock n’ roll phenomenon was about.
The main line of explanation that emerges is that 50s rock n’ roll was some kind of “revolution” itself, or at least a forerunner to the big one of the 60s. This proves particularly convenient for allowing critics to dismiss the gap that had opened between the original rock n’ roll and post-‘66 rock, not to mention the latter’s growing distance from soul and funk. It also turns out to be helpful, a bit later on, for making a place for punk and new wave in the larger rock narrative.
But I side with Martha Bayles’s essential Hole in our Soul in regarding this understanding of 50s rock n’ roll as almost totally errant. And American Graffiti’s take is far closer to hers and mine than to that of the mainstream rock critics. To see why, let’s look at few key bits of Bayles’s argument:
The journalist Robert Palmer, writing in Rolling Stone, is more blunt [than Herbert London, who argues the same thing]: “Much has been made of Sixties rock as a vehicle for revolutionary social and cultural change, but it was mid-Fifties rock & roll that blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of centuries.” …If truth were merely a matter of repetition, then the notion that 1950s rock n’ roll was a social and cultural revolution would be one of the greatest truths of all time. As it happens, it is a myth.
…1950s rock n’ roll did topple one particular ancien régime: that of the major labels… …by the early 1950s, they were riding high…they knew their product: smooth, polished vocal music set to an orchestral background. This music was called “pop”… …Pop arose from the ashes of swing…
Some 1950s pop lives up the best legacy of swing. For example, Frank Sinatra’s 1953 record “Lean Baby” contains jazz inflections and phrasings reminiscent of good swing. Other pop hits, such as Patti Page’s “Doggie in the Window,” recall only the banality and standardization of swing at its worst. Sad but true, Page’s record sold better than Sinatra’s—in fact, for an infamous eight weeks in 1953, “Doggie” was the best-selling song in America.
Bayles then goes on to elaborate the fairly well-known story of how teenage ears began to gravitate towards the minor labels putting out C&W, and especially, R&B, hearing these through particular non-mainstream radio stations like WIDA from Memphis, or through record-hop DJs like Alan Freed.
Freed himself once remarked that “rock n’ roll was merely swing with a modern name.” And he was right. By the 1950s America’s dance floors had been virtually abandoned—first by the beboppers, with their exploration of rhythms too subtle for human feet; and then by pop, with its preference for mid-tempo ballads. Given this dearth, it is hardly surprising that young whites would seek out whatever dance music was available. R&B was different from swing in the sense of being played by smaller groups in a bluesier, rhythmically heavier style.
So it was not a musical revolution.
…Equally important [to the attraction to R&B] were the messages and meanings, so different from those of pop. Take showmanship: The war generation had grown up with the flashy zoot suits, pomaded hair, and acrobatic antics of “His Hi-De-Ho Highness,” Cab Calloway. But such uninhibited fun had been pretty well purged from 1950s pop. However sweetly he sang, Perry Como in a cardigan was no substitute. As for the lyrics, there were plenty of pop songs about love, but they were mostly treacle. To young ears fed on ditties like “The Little White Cloud That Cried,” it was a pleasurable shock to encounter “Sixty Minute Man” and “Work with Me, Annie.”
…Granted, the lyrics of R&B (and C&W, for that matter) are a bit saltier than those of mainstream pop. But the change was less a revolution than a restoration: The swing era had seen plenty of songs with suggestive lyrics, from Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” to Jordan’s “The Chick’s Too Young to Fry”…
I think Bayles exaggerates this point a bit, and she ignores the fact that swing more often consisted of instrumentals, which diminished focus upon a singer’s romance-appeal or sex-appeal, and upon any lyrics. More importantly, Bayles herself provides an intriguing sexual-dynamics-of-the-segregated-South theory to explain the young white female frenzy that developed around Elvis, and which became something of a rock n’ roll tradition. She also provides a theory about a certain extra Pentecostal punch coming into strains of 50s rock with key artists like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, with the Holy Ghost enthusiasm redirected into a hedonistically bacchanalian mode. So all in all, she’s certainly able to see that there was more sex-focused energy in 50s rock n’ roll than in previous good-time music.
It’s just that “more” doesn’t add up to a significant departure, let alone to anything “revolutionary.” The main departure from earlier sexual morays probably comes in the years immediately following WWI, and the decisive departure of course comes in the 60s, in the wake of the Pill most of all.
Her final point against the “revolution” thesis concerns race relations:
It is true that the 1950s were a high-water mark of white interest in black-dominated music. But such levels had been reached before, without America’s racial problems being solved. Like all previous crazes for Afro-American music, the rock n’ roll craze was marked by…mental compartmentalization…: white pleasure in black performance in one compartment, white prejudice against blacks in the other.
And what she calls the “technology of private consumption” that drove the craze easily counter-balanced the ways in which the music might actually bring blacks and whites together. The film Ray illustrated that even a star as big as Ray Charles had to enter the political fray if he wanted integrated concerts, and that he couldn’t even think of fighting for this until the civil rights movement had paved the way.
So all in all, 50s rock n’ roll was no revolution “in any sweeping musical, sexual, or racial sense.” It was, “above all, a dance craze.” Now here, as per usual, I think our main response to Martha Bayles pop-music criticism should be a hearty “A-men!” Yes, we might hold that American Graffiti’s take differs slightly from Bayles’s by suggesting that rock n’ roll meant more to American teenagers than a mere dance craze could; but what we must particularly note is Lucas’s and Bayles’s similar refusal to endorse the revolution thesis.
So American Graffiti felt the 50s and early 60s rock n’ roll phenomenon was important, but nonetheless conveyed a much more down-to-earth view of it than our rock critics typically have. Yes, some changes in sexual morays were in the air, but basically, the film portrays all the “rebellious” aspects of the teen scene circa 1962 as well-contained rituals. Nothing it shows threatens the existing American order, and until the “what happened to them” lines at the end, there is not a hint of the shocks of the mid-to-late 60s just around the corner. The cruisin’ hot-rod scene, the teenage JD gang (The Pharaohs), and even the pushing-the-envelope tendencies of the teen make-out spot are shown to have conservative tendencies in that they tend to further tie the main characters to small-town mainstream American life. They allow for certain rebellious, romantic, and heroic instincts to be expressed, and to then become domesticated.
I’m using the word “conservative” not in the sense that I’d use it, as standing for prudence, humility, and freedom from ideocratic dogma, but as I suspect the George Lucas of 1973 would use it. Yes, he poetically celebrates the mainstream youth culture of 1962, but his ultimate judgment against it is made fairly plain at the end of the film with the descriptions of how the characters turn out. Here’s those descriptions:
John Milner was killed by a drunk driver in December 1964.
Terry Fields was reported missing in action near An Loc in December 1965.
Steve Bolander is an insurance agent in Modesto, California.
Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.
According to Lucas, America of the 50s-to-mid-60s is a pretty flawed society. It betrays the patriotic trust of Terry with its conduct of the Vietnam War, it in a sense also kills John with its car-culture, it traps Steve into inauthentic existence, and it exiles the one intellectual character(again, the fault is the war’s—his living in Canada is likely due to draft resistance). America’s somewhat rebellious but mostly chirpy-go-lucky youth culture does nothing to prepare the main characters to recognize its limitations, or to escape the traps it is setting for them.
So I’d say there are two main themes the film is interweaving, and the invited interpretive task is to consider how they reinforce one another. First, there is the exploration of the 50s/early 60s rock n’ roll youth culture. Second, there is a comparison of Curt’s escape from the clutches of provincial town life with the way the three other young men, Steve, Terry, and John, get more entangled in them.
Yes, the feminist critics perhaps had a point to make against Lucas’s ending seeming to not care about the fates of the female characters. In fact, the main ones, Laurie, Debbie, and young Caroline are more archetypes than characters—the first is designed to personify the manipulative aspects of teenage romance, and the latter two are largely designed to personify aspects of pop culture. The most interesting women in the film are Curt’s two potential love interests, community-college-bound Wendy, and the mystery girl in the thunderbird—the film gives us only a little time with the former, and only a few tantalizing glimpses of the latter.
And yes, a conservative critic would perhaps have a point to make against the lionization of Curt, and particularly in an era like ours where we are all tired of and disenchanted with liberal baby-boomer stories about promising questioning types, which of course represent the writers’ own blessedly self-liberating selves, getting past the limitations and prejudices of their provincial hometowns or suburbs and going onto more meaningful things, albeit while casting a wistful artistic eye back to an old home-place. In our day, thoughtful minds recognize that challenge is less to liberate oneself from old provincial ways, as to see whether one can reconnect with any such ways, that is, whether one can cultivate traditional ways in a manner suitable for modern times. So for example, Rod Dreher’s struggle to make his return to his home-place work, recounted in The Way of Ruthie Lemming and How Dante Can Save Your Life, means more to us now than George Lucas’s classic liberal boomer struggle to free himself from Modesto, as glimpsed in the Curt character (and in the Luke character of Star Wars), possibly could.
True, Curt’s escape from Modesto is not presented as an unambiguous triumph. He is a “writer,” hoo-ray, but he’s now in Canada, due to dodging the draft. So perhaps he will be unable or unwilling to become a writer who benefits America with his gifts. Curt could apparently only choose between a conformist resigned existence in the small town, and an America-ditching cosmopolitanism. There was no in-between American place or role for him. It is fair to ask whether that tragic choice, as framed by Lucas, is untruthful about the range of options the America of that era could offer.
Still, if we mainly take the film on its own terms, we’ll find that Lucas has plenty of insights to offer, in fact, has a remarkable store of wisdom for a man of only twenty-eight summers. And so just as we should accept the archetypal characterization of the female characters as a given, let’s provisionally accept that Curt’s outcome is, whatever its tragic tinge, clearly the best one among those of the four male characters.
Why, the film is prodding us to ask, was he able to escape from Modesto? And why were the others not? That’s what we’ll take up in the next post.