Just Like the Lone Ranger

Universal executives and marketers didn’t understand American Graffiti. That isn’t a knock against the studio system or a situation in which a studio botched a release, rather an understandable befuddlement. American Graffiti didn’t exist for people in their 60s+, the age of those moguls in charge. Rather, it’s a film for kids OF the ‘60s, the baby boomers who came of age just before dramatic social and cultural change.

American Graffiti was certainly nostalgic for 30-somethings upon release. Those who were the age of its characters at the time depicted (1962) unquestionably yearned for nights filled with aimless hot rod driving, the simple troubles, the booze, and the sex.

American Graffiti is truthful and honest in a way few movies are

Inherently biographical, George Lucas told his story of growing up, minus the film camera, and presented it on screen to an audience hungry to return to their teens. It’s a rare a film so accurately depicts a specific cultural snapshot in past history, and American Graffiti was fortunate to be so near the time period as it entered production.

California streets put a soundtrack on blast, so critical, crucial, and integral to American Graffiti that it’s rarely stopped. The way DJ Wolfman Jack’s broadcast echoes invisibly suggests a unity between the kids who spend their nights in shared rebellion at high volume. While Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) serves as American Graffiti’s center, a kid trying to convince himself not to leave home the next day, the script finds countless opportunities for misadventure, some legal, some not.

Yet, like the music they play, each character shares the same anxieties, on the cusp of adulthood, living their final days of youth as wild, even desperate kids. The allure of being an adult – the sex, the booze – clashes with their still undeveloped identities, with confused women and socially maligned boys. If the script and action seem effortless, that’s because it is. Not that making American Graffiti was easy so much as it was spilling out from ingrained and personal memories.

Considering Lucas’ past, American Graffiti’s background story isn’t of a genius director (no insult intended) so much as a director with such passion, knowledge, and experience as to accurately fictionalize a single wild night representing his own life. It’s truthful and honest in a way few movies are, so no wonder that scared upper tier executives used to spinning empty fantasy about monsters and the west.

American Graffiti 4K UHD screen shot


Appalling. Truly appalling, and that goes double for something as culturally critical as American Graffiti. Smothered by noise reduction (but admittedly better than the Blu-ray master), the grain reduction smothers any and all detail in the frame. What grain remains sticks and moves with the actors, while a trail of edge enhancement follows along.

HDR barely helps. Shadows crush regularly, turning nighttime into a series of blobs rather than people. Around 1:10:00, the imagery becomes so dark, it’s hard to see anything. Maybe that makes sense – it’s deep into the night – yet even making out who’s talking is a struggle. Highlights look better than Blu-ray, but not by any significant degree. American Graffiti can’t find even basic dimensionality. When shadows fail, macroblocking interferes, and that’s not the compression, but rather the dismal noise reduction.

Color holds a sepia tint, reducing primaries overall and slanting flesh tones toward an unusual orange-y/brown. Not that primaries lack a spark; they have their moments, whether clothing or car paint. Overall though, the bite on the film stock’s color disappears.


While generally pure and cleanly resolved, the default DTS-HD 5.1 track blows out the low-end during the iconic soundtrack, loosely rattling rather than offering low-end support. Car engines do the same, and if they sounded like this in real life, said car would end up in the shop. The final crash thuds along, bloated, hot, and unnatural.

Other than the music, which finds multiple moments to sweep through the stereos and surrounds, American Graffiti sticks to the center channel for its clean dialog. Song fidelity is impeccable too.


Universal ports bonuses from the Blu-ray, including a George Lucas commentary (minus the visual enhancements), a 78-minute making of, screen tests, and trailer.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

American Graffiti
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Few films capture a cultural snapshot as well as American Graffiti, and few ever will after.

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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 43 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD:

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