Why “American Graffiti” is George Lucas’s Best Film

Story by Skeeter Wesinger

When George Lucas unveiled “American Graffiti” in 1973, it wasn’t just a film but a time machine. The year was 1962, and Lucas’s canvas was the nocturnal sprawl of Modesto, California, his boyhood backdrop. This was America before it lost its innocence, before the seismic shifts of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of JFK and MLK, the Manson Family horrors, and the Watergate scandal. It was an America that existed just before everything changed, and Lucas captured it with aching nostalgia.

Remember 1973? Nixon was reshaping America’s financial landscape by detaching the dollar from the gold standard. Protests against the Vietnam War were a fixture in the news. Yet amidst this turmoil, Lucas offered a retreat to a seemingly simpler past. “American Graffiti” parked us squarely on those sun-baked Modesto streets where the biggest worry was what song the DJ would play next.

Critics might argue that Lucas’s later works surpass this early outing with their grander scales and technological innovations. Yet, “American Graffiti” stands out in Lucas’s filmography as his most personal film, a lovingly detailed tableau of his youth. The film’s power lies in its ability to evoke nostalgia without being blinded by it. Lucas doesn’t just remind us of the past; he makes us feel the poignancy of losing it.

The soundtrack alone—featuring hits like “At the Hop,” “Runaway, and “16 Candles”—is a masterclass in storytelling, each track capturing the zeitgeist of early ’60s teen culture. It’s an era encapsulated in the blissful ignorance of the film’s characters, teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, unaware of the tumultuous changes awaiting them in the decade.

“American Graffiti also set a stylistic precedent that resonates through cinema today—from the teen angst of “The Breakfast Club to the nostalgic echoes in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Lucas’s film isn’t just a reflection on youth; it’s a commentary on the American experience, a mirror held up to a society perpetually in flux.

In a filmography filled with faraway galaxies and epic sagas, “American Graffiti does something remarkable. It brings us home. It reminds us of where we came from and, more poignantly, how far we have traveled. That’s why, in my view, it remains not just a significant work in Lucas’s oeuvre but his finest film.