Lately, it seems like the Internet’s most valuable currency isn’t Bitcoins or Instagram likes; it’s Star Wars hot takes.
One of the more thought-provoking topics to emerge from this ongoing discourse is whether or not the franchise suffered because series creator George Lucas wasn’t on writing duties or sitting in the director’s chair after he sold it to Disney.
While I don’t want to add to that speculation, I thought it would be interesting to talk about another much-maligned sequel to a Lucas property: More American Graffiti (1979).
For those of you who don’t know, the original American Graffiti (1973) was Lucas’ big claim to fame before he created the most popular media franchise in the history of human civilization.
But in stark contrast to the sweeping scale and sci-fi bombast of the original Star Wars, American Graffiti is a small, intimate coming-of-age story that centres on a group of California youth in 1962 who just graduated high school and are on the cusp of early adulthood.
The film follows these kids during one hectic night and morning, where they get into street races, fall in love, and decide if they even want to go to college, all set to a period-appropriate rock ’n’ roll soundtrack.
Thanks to Lucas’ uncanny ability to capture the sights and sounds of the early baby boomer generation, the film went on to gross $140,000 million off of a $777,000 budget, which paved the way for the Hollywood outsider to bankroll his ambitious space opera.
I don’t have to tell you what happened when Star Wars (later dubbed Episode IV: A New Hope) finally came out in May 1977, but suffice it say that Lucas got very busy, which forced him to put other projects on the backburner.
Because of this, when a sequel to American Graffiti was in development Lucas only served as an executive producer (and uncredited editor), handing off directing/writing duties to Bill Norton.
Rather than just rehash the same format, Norton decided to take this sequel into new and interesting directions, following the original film’s characters (except Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt) across four different New Year’s Eve celebrations from 1964 to 1967.
When More American Graffiti was eventually released in 1979, it was savaged by critics, with many calling this new structure “confusing,” “pointless” and “a mess.” Currently, the film holds a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 10 reviews) and a not-so-great 5.3/10 user rating on IMDB.
Having recently watched this film for the first time, I do wish people would give More American Graffiti a second shot, since it’s genuinely one of the most creatively ambitious sequels I’ve ever seen.
First let’s talk about the film’s aforementioned structure.
Going into the movie blind, I’ll admit that splitting the story into four segments did catch me by surprise and took some getting used to.
Not only do these storylines happen simultaneously (constantly switching back and forth) but they’re also shot in their own unique style and aspect ratio.
The opening segment in 1964 follows now professional drag racer John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and is shot using a wide angle, stationary camera that was typical of 1950s exploitation cinema.
Terry the Toad’s (Charles Martin Smith) attempts to survive the jungles of Vietnam in 1965 are captured using a handheld, 16mm camera.
The psychedelic adventures of Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) in 1966 San Francisco are probably the most experimental sections of the film, since the director utilizes multiple split-screen camera angles to depict the character’s wild, drug-fueled hippie lifestyle.
Thankfully, the movie settles down for the final segment in 1967 California, where the buttoned-down, domesticated Steve and Laurie (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) get swept up in a violent student protest.
After cycling through this process a couple times, you’ll quickly find that this visual style is not just some dumb gimmick.
In fact, this kind of filmmaking elevates More American Graffiti from being a cheap, cash-grab sequel to something that expands on the story of the original while also maintaining its own unique voice.
For one thing, these contrasting filmmaking styles kept me engaged through the entire 110-minute runtime, since there was always something new and exciting to gawk at.
At the same time, Norton manages to exercise some restraint in the editing department and gives each scene just enough room to breathe before jumping ahead in time.
The contrasting aspect ratios also do a great job of telling you what year it is without the need to artificially slap a distracting title card on the screen every time the setting changes.
Plus, on a creative level, I just have to admire the balls it must have taken to greenlight such a weirdo sequel in the first place.
I imagine the filmmakers were seriously tempted to simply replicate the structure of the first film, where all the action takes place within a couple hours. Maybe the characters from American Graffiti come back together for a high school reunion or a wedding, and hijinks ensue from there.
But instead, Norton and company decided to split these characters up (for the most part) and scatter their stories across different stretches of time and geographic space, robbing the audience of the warm nostalgic comradery that made the original American Graffiti so popular in the first place.
To bring the conversation back to Star Wars for a second, that was a very Rian Johnson move.
But the fractured nature of More American Graffiti serves a very specific thematic purpose, since it’s meant to reflect the tumultuous, divisive nature of the United States in the 1960s.
Not only are most of the characters thrust into some of the biggest political and cultural touchstones of that era (like Vietnam, the hippie music scene and student protests) but we, the audience, view them all happening at the same time.
And while this mixture of sights and sounds can be slightly disorienting, it paints a really beautiful picture a bunch of people trying to find their way in an increasingly complicated and chaotic world.
Film critic Nathan Rabin actually sums up the experience better than I ever could in a write-up for The Dissolve, saying: “More American Graffiti is about the fracturing of a culture, and the simultaneously exciting and terrifying freedom of that splintering.”
Even if you hate this stylistic approach, most American Graffiti fans will at least appreciate the sequel’s stellar soundtrack.
Following up the original’s famous set list is no easy task, since it featured pioneering rock ’n’ roll figures like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.
However, Norton managed to cultivate a set list that perfectly encapsulates how that same genre of music evolved throughout the1960s, with songs from counterculture icons like Bob Dylan, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds.
The film’s cast is equally strong, which is impressive considering they could have easily phoned in their performances for (if we’re being honest) a sequel that no-one was really asking for.
Instead, these actors, thanks in part to Norton’s script, are fully committed to injecting new depth into their characters.
High school nerd Terry the Toad finally grows a spine in the jungles of Vietnam. Debbie’s impulsive personality finally bites her in the ass and she is forced to take on more responsibility. John realizes that his “cool guy” status from high school is quickly fading. Meanwhile, Steve and Laurie’s conservative values are put to the test when they witness the horrors of police brutality first-hand.
I’m also thoroughly impressed with how Norton managed to recruit pretty much all the major players from American Graffiti to reprise their roles, even down to minor characters like the members of the Pharaohs street gang.
Heck, he even got Harrison Ford to make a brief cameo as Bob Falfa even though the next Star Wars movie was looming on the horizon.
To bring this conversation back full circle, I guess watching More American Graffiti was exactly the palette cleanser I needed after sitting through The Rise of Skywalker.
Instead of playing it safe and relying on cheap nostalgia to tell your story, this Lucas sequel decided to challenge its audience by going way off the reservation and taking some real creative risks.
Of course, this approach didn’t really work out in the short term, given the thrashing it received from critics at the time.
And More American Graffiti definitely has its fair share of rough edges that even I can’t excuse, with some obvious production gaffs (like obviously fake props and a visible camera man being in frame at one point) that somehow making it into the final cut.
But I’ll definitely take a messy film full of heart and interesting ideas over a glorified corporate line item any day of the week, although I’m worried that Disney is choosing the latter approach when it comes to all their newly acquired intellectual properties.
Oh, and on an unrelated topic: here’s my 50-page master’s thesis on why The Last Jedi is [content redacted].
Corner store companion:
Salt & Vinegar, Barbecue, All Dressed, and Ranch Crispers (so you can enjoy four distinct flavours for each section of the film)
-Release date: Aug. 3, 1979
-Budget: $3 million
-Box Office Gross: $15,014,674
–More American Graffiti served as Ron Howard’s last major film role. After this movie wrapped, the actor would only appear in television before transitioning into directing, producing and voice-over work only.
-The filmmakers attracted thousands of extras for the movie’s climactic drag race scene by promising them free Star Wars toys.
-Bill Norton would go on to carve out a nice career for himself by directing television, including episodes of The Twilight Zone, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel.
-Musical highlight: there are so many great tracks to choose from, but I’m going to have to go with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which plays over the closing credits.