Has there ever been a simpler pleasure than kicking back & listening to the radio, whether it be music to liven up the drive to work or tuning in to the football on a Saturday? Anyone who's ever listened to 6 Music will sort of know what to expect as we look now at George Lucas in his BW period - that's Before Williams! To do so we turn to American Graffiti, his 1973 comedy drama, in a sense a fictionalised account of his own early Sixties teenage years.
Complete with a soundtrack from a period particularly fertile in terms of the early stirrings of rock & roll. Hits that were playing on every teenagers radio in the early sixties, including Lucas'. It's no wonder then that George cast gravely voiced DJ Wolfman Jack in the film...
Listeners in Louisiana would hear the first stirrings of the Wolfman, who would be fondly remembered in a New York Times obituary after his passing in July 1995.
"He cascaded to fame as Wolfman Jack, a faceless hero on the AM airwaves and a pioneer of the peculiar genre called border radio, because it was broadcast from just over the border in Mexico. He was among a group of border disk jockeys in the early 1960's with names like Hound Dog and Huggy Boy, and he had his name legally changed."Indeed the release of American Grafitti marked the first time many had seen his actual face!
The Dissolve says of the soundtrack that,
"When the American Graffiti soundtrack was released in 1973, it contained 41 “original hits” from the film; 31 of the 41 were released in 1960 or earlier. The 10 other tracks are present in the film as dismaying signifiers of a changing era. When The Beach Boys’ 1962 song “Surfin’ Safari” pops up on the radio, John instantly dismisses it. “I don't like that surfin’ shit,” he gripes. “Rock ’n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.”
This is the secret to American Graffiti’s success, the reason it resonated so strongly with viewers in 1973 and every generation since: It isn’t simply a nostalgic movie, it’s a nostalgic movie about nostalgia. Lucas could have set the film in 1959, when Steve, Curt, and John were still in high school and still cruising night after endless night. Instead, Graffiti begins right as the fun is about to end, and gives its characters just enough self-awareness to recognize that this is last call at the party. George Lucas isn’t the only one mourning for this magical lost era; the characters onscreen mourn right along with him."
Lucas' home town of Modesto would honour him through the prism of the film & its music, into the bargain!
"For the first time, George Lucas integrated popular music into the flow of the film. In fact, he has said he was “very interested in the relationship between teenagers and rock’n’roll: when I wrote the script, I would select a song for each scene. I would make each scene less than two minutes or whatever the length of the song was.”In a sense he riffed on Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound, using the radio in much the same way as the disgraced former record producer used multiple instruments & the studio to create what he called little symphonies for the kids. BBC Entertainment puts it simply....
He noted that since the film almost had “wall-to-wall songs, we treated the music like a sound effect.” Sometimes Lucas even had tunes seeming like they were coming from the radio of a passing car. He said: “In Graffiti, I used the music to create the realism and the sound effects to create the drama.”
"Characterised by bombastic, reverberating instruments which constantly threatened to drown out the vocals, the Wall of Sound was one of the first attempts to use the recording studio as an instrument in its own right."Cars also have their part to play in the nostalgic element of American Graffiti. Unsurprising when you consider that as a young man Lucas's primary ambition had been to be a motor racer. A near fatal crash somewhat changed his mind, but the track's loss was cinema's gain as he went on to study at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
In not entirely unrelated developments, the Beach Boys were beginning to take an interest in the potential of the automobile as hit material, the likes of I Get Around & 409 emerging just at the right moment, Brian Wilson & co-writer Gary Usher tapping into the developing trend for hot rods.
With drag racing being our esteemed director's first love, maybe he just couldn't help himself with this reference? As if you look closely enough during Attack Of The Clones as the younger Obi-Wan Kenobi & Anakin Skywalker attempt to chase down bounty hunter Zam Wesell, the landspeeder they travel in is based on a yellow deuce coupe.
Dex's Diner is also based on Mel's Drive-In from American Graffiti. Apt given the success of the film enabled Lucas to finance his new pet space opera project, which would become Star Wars. Within four years of Grafitti's release he'd be working on it, a radio soundtrack cast aside in favour of calling in a big gun.
So it was that John Williams brought along his baton. When asked about his work on the first Star Wars film the composer said...
"Well, when we did the initial recording in London in 1977, I didn’t have any inkling that there would be a second film, and George Lucas, who has created all this, as you know, didn’t tell me or, as far as I know, anybody else, if there was going to be a second film or, let alone, a third film. I thought that it was a great film and that it would be a wonderful sort of Saturday afternoon show for the family, and then in a few weeks it would be gone."Thankfully he was proven wrong!
And now it is he who experiences the nostalgia, of sorts, every time he gets the call to return to score another Lucasfilm feature,
"The approach is always pretty much the same for me. It’s a working life, as you know, in music. I have done a lot of films and a lot of other composing, various projects in the interim years, but when I have come back to the Star Wars films or, for that matter, Indiana Jones where we’ve done four of them, I always felt that it was kind of like getting back on your teenage bicycle. You haven’t forgotten how to ride it at all, it just takes a few hours to get back in the swing of whatever the modalities are of that particular project."Next up, Spike Lee & Public Enemy!