“Source” music in a movie can be dicey. This is music that plays within the movie in such a way that we understand the characters in the scene can hear it, rather than music that plays over the film solely for our benefit. American Graffiti wasn’t the first movie to use source music effectively by any means, but perhaps no film before or since has used it as well. If for some reason you’re part of the 67% of Flickcharters who shamefully have not seen the movie, the premise is simple enough: four teenage friends spend the last night of Summer, 1962 together. The whole film spans that one night, from sundown to sunup. The various characters split off and reunite throughout the film, their individual and collective stories told across Modesto, California.
Anchoring the vignettes is the film’s soundtrack. In fact, because the licensing costs for the original recordings were so high, there was no score or any other original music recorded for American Graffiti. Director George Lucas characterized his approach to making the film as though he was producing a documentary and perhaps it’s the use of music that most clearly suggests this aesthetic. Every song played throughout the film is ostensibly a platter spun by famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack and heard through the radio of any of the ubiquitous cars present in nearly every scene. The whole of Modesto is tuned into the Wolfman’s show, from jocks to greasers.
What makes this so brilliant is that the film will shift from one plot thread to another, but the transition occurs within the same song creating cohesion and structure. The cumulative effect is the sense that we’re really spending an entire night with a group of friends. American Graffiti wasn’t the first film to present such a story, but it still stands tall today as one of the most charming and sincere Coming-of-Age movies yet put on film.
The story goes that Universal Pictures declined to pay an additional $5000 when licensing the recordings to secure the rights to release a soundtrack album. Looking upon the world of the early 1970s, they had little confidence that a film set in 1962 would catch on with an audience and even less confidence that a soundtrack album compiling all those golden oldies would turn a profit. When the film was finally released and became a hit, Universal reversed its position and released a soundtrack album collecting 41 songs in their chronological movie sequence. Allegedly, because they had to re-negotiate licensing rights for the soundtrack, Universal had to pay $1 million to get the compilation produced.
Interestingly, even though Wolfman Jack is clearly the cat’s pajamas, only ten of the songs were from 1960-1962; the majority of the songs are from the 1950s. Also, the song that plays over the end credits, “All Summer Long” by the Beach Boys, wasn’t recorded until 1964—two years after the film’s setting. Three songs were recorded by Flash Cadillac & the Continental Kids (“At the Hop,” “Louie, Louie” and “She’s So Fine”), but since the band performs the songs in the movie in character as Herbie and the Heartbeats, it’s not a typical substitution. Their cover of “Louie, Louie” is one of only two recordings absent from the otherwise comprehensive soundtrack album; the other missing recording is “Gee” by The Crows. (Nitpickers may also lament the absence of Harrison Ford singing “Some Enchanted Evening” as performed in the movie.)
The tagline on the poster asks, “Where were you in ’62?” I was sixteen years away from being born, so I can’t speak to whether a group of teenagers in Modesto, California wrapped up that summer with a night like the one depicted in American Graffiti, but I’m certain they should have. It’s said that you can’t be nostalgic for something you didn’t experience, but George Lucas and his deft use of music makes it seem possible for two hours.