American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti

You just can’t stay seventeen forever. From magic hour until dawn, George Lucas’ evocation of the last night of properly being a teenager in Modesto, CA c. 1962 remains one of the most truly felt, realistically dramatised portraits of that difficult age. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is arguing with high school class president Steve (Ron Howard) in the car park of Mel’s Drive-In when he says he’s changing his mind about leaving for college in the morning. Steve breaks up with Curt’s sister and head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) and vests custody of his beloved wheels to Toad (Charles Martin Smith) while the oldest teen in town, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) looks on.  Music is pouring from the school hall where Herby & the Heartbeats aka Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids are performing at the back to school hop. Steve and Laurie have to pretend they’re still getting along as they dance in front of everyone. Curt spots a blonde angel (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a Thunderbird and can’t be persuaded she’s a prostitute even after phoning her. John gives little Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) a ride and she aggressively but innocently pursues her crush on him. Toad picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) in the car and she proves surprisingly sweet considering her Monroe-esque attributes. John agrees to a drag race on Paradise Road against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and it ends in a flame-out at dawn …  This low budget quasi-autobiographical film and tribute to hot rodding was made by George Lucas when he couldn’t get his version of Apocalypse Now off the ground. HIs college classmates Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote his story and Richard Walter did a sexy rewrite which didn’t work for Lucas and he rewrote it all himself using his record collection as inspiration for the different sections. It wasn’t sufficiently sexy or violent enough for AIP so United Artists financed the development (whew). It looked to UA like a music montage so that was when Universal came up with the money for production. It was shot in Techniscope utilising two cinematographers in each scene to save time and money and look like widescreen 16mm. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea (after Verna Fields left the rough cut for a bigger budget movie called What’s Up Doc?) to arrange the story to Wolfman Jack’s radio show focusing on rock ‘n’ roll classics. The soundtrack budget didn’t allow for the fees demanded by Elvis’ company, RCA and it’s all curated by Kim Fowley. The songs chronicle each of the vignettes, culminating in Curt’s departure for college at the local airport. Steve stays in Modesto and the credits commence with a card telling us of what supposedly becomes of each of the four protagonists. Ironically Lucas missed his high school reunion in Modesto because of the shoot which took him to San Rafael and then Petaluma. It was done in sequence and mainly at night so the actors would look progressively more tired as the night becomes morning. Charming, cherishable, wise and funny, with a vast array of performers who became household names and starting a huge vogue for Fifties nostalgia – Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died, as one of the guys declares while rubbishing The Beach Boys. An evocative, classic, inspirational homage to guys, girls, cars and rock ‘n’ roll. What more do you want?! Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Dementia 13 is on the marquee of the local cinema.

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Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

Elvis Aaron Presley 01/08/1935-08/16/1977

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It was forty years ago today that Elvis Presley died. His film career echoed his musical life – the early films were better and some approached classic status:  Jailhouse Rock is a great musical, while his very first performance, in Love Me Tender, was impressive, a reminder that James Dean was his hero. His own favourite film remained King Creole but there were so many afterwards, thanks to the influence of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Some are cult favourites, some are terrible, some are great for kids and thus endeared him to me at an impressionable age (It Happened at the World’s Fair, Paradise Hawaiian Style), while some were instrumental in bringing huge tourist numbers to Hawaii! The better ones like GI Blues have wonderful songs or a great romantic pairing like Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas. Two didn’t have musical numbers at all and he was able to flex his acting muscle – Flaming Star, Wild in the Country – and very good he was too. Just as his musical choices became more baroque, his movies became ropy and questionable albeit some are redeemed by their settings (Speedway) or their lunatic elements (Harum Scarum).  There was one very good late film, with Mary Tyler Moore, Change of Habit, but it’s a very long time since I’ve seen it and would love to reappraise it. His screen legacy has been inherited by the wonderful actress (Danielle) Riley Keough, his granddaughter. But there’s only one Elvis. The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

 

Rock Around the Clock (1956)

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My grandmother and I used to disagree about all things musical – she thought The Police were actually cops and was delighted I was planning to see them play live. She hated Sinatra which is just sacrilege. But when she heard me play Bill Haley during one of those periodic rock ‘n’ roll revivals she was totally jazzed – and impressed me with the jaw-dropping revelation that she had seen them play in her local hall in 1956!  The plot here about two protean A&R types trying to get cool and promote these smalltown hepcats in the big city is really and thankfully just an excuse to hear Bill and his gang play some of their top tunes with The Platters in particular giving good support. Otherwise there’s the chance to see (the infamous) Alan Freed. Tune in, turn on, rock ‘n’ roll! Produced by Sam Katzman and directed by Fred F. Sears.

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956)

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Failed music agent Tom Ewell gets summoned by gangster Edmond O’Brien to make his talentless girlfriend Jayne Mansfield a famous recording star within six weeks. The eagle-eyed will spot this as the bones of the plot of Born Yesterday, a film that should have starred Marilyn Monroe (nobody looked at her screen test). And Monroe is all over this uncredited adaptation of a story by Garson Kanin (who wrote Born Yesterday), her sweetness, her love of home and of course her pneumatic looks – although the genius-IQ Mansfield is possibly larger in that department and unlike Marilyn she cannot hold a note, at least for the purposes of this story. There’s a score by Bobby Troup and (his real-life) wife Julie London looms large in Tom Ewell’s nightmares as his lost love – just as his wife did in the previous year’s Seven Year Itch, opposite Marilyn.  But it’s the opportunity to see some of the great rock ‘n’ roll acts of the time that still beckons (Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran) and director Frank Tashlin cleverly integrates a lot of the lyrics as commentary on the action; and the infamous sight gag of milk bottles in Mansfield’s hands, a typical comment by the auteur on Fifties consumerism, sexism and a tribute to his cartoonist colleagues at Warners. Written by Tashlin and Herbert Baker. Rock. And. Roll.