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Saturday, December 2, 2023

American Graffiti (1973) – 4K Ultra HD Review

American Graffiti, 1973.

Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack, and Harrison Ford.


American Graffiti, the movie that blew the doors off movie theaters and paved the way for director George Lucas to make a follow-up called Star Wars, makes its 4K Ultra HD debut. Unfortunately, the visual quality seems to suffer the same issues as its Blu-ray predecessor, but on the upside, the great collection of bonus features are ported over.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. We have a set of experiences growing up and then so many of us want to relive those days, or at least some of them, depending on how our childhoods go. I’ve always assumed the rapid changes of the 20th century made nostalgia more pronounced for the last several generations, but I imagine it’s probably always been a part of human psyche in some way.

I don’t think I ever talked to my father about George Lucas’s 1973 hit movie American Graffiti, but he was born in 1941, so I’d imagine the exploits of those characters over one important night resonated with him to some degree (He passed away last year, so that opportunity is gone, unfortunately).

Revisiting the film for this review, I was struck by how much it actually pressed my nostalgia buttons, even though I was three years old when it came out. So many members of the cast went on to star in movies and TV shows that were a big part of my childhood, and, of course, American Graffiti’s box office success set up George Lucas so he could drop Star Wars on us a few years later.

The story is episodic and a bit rough around the edges, but it’s still an earnest and bittersweet look at a group of friends in a small northern California town (it was shot in Modesto, Lucas’s hometown, but I’m not sure that the location is ever specified) and their exploits one evening as they get ready for a variety of changes in their lives.

This new 4K Ultra HD release of the movie is in honor of its 50th anniversary, and Universal has included the film on 4K and Blu-ray platters, along with a code for a digital copy. I haven’t owned American Graffiti on home video before, but I believe the included Blu-ray is the same one that was issued in 2011.

Universal hasn’t given any indication that the film was restored for this 4K Ultra HD release, so I assume it’s the same print used for that earlier Blu-ray. That Blu-ray received plenty of mediocre reviews for its lackluster image quality, and it seems that the same problem has followed the movie to 4K.

That’s a shame, since this is a movie worthy of a “rebuild it from the ground up” kind of restoration, but maybe Universal wants to see how this edition sells before putting resources into such a project. Of course, if mediocre image quality deters people from buying this release, I suppose the studio will assume there isn’t much of a demand for a restoration.

As far as bonus features go, Universal hasn’t created anything new, but that’s okay since what’s there is excellent. George Lucas makes plenty of appearances, starting with a commentary track that’s picture-in-picture on the Blu-ray disc but standard audio on the 4K Ultra HD platter.

The picture-in-picture version of the commentary — dubbed “U-Control Video Commentary” back in the halcyon days of Blu-ray, when the studios were trying all kinds of technological tricks — doesn’t really take advantage of the medium, since it doesn’t fill the director’s lapses with any supplemental visuals. 

As a result, you can get the same experience with the audio track on the 4K Ultra HD platter, unless you enjoy watching George Lucas talk. It occurred to me while writing this review that the studios have basically gone back to the DVD days with 4K Ultra HD releases: they’re sticking with the standard tried-and-true types of extras.

The only exception to that is the reliance on including some, or sometimes all, of the extras with the digital version and leaving the discs a bit empty. That’s not the case with American Graffiti, thankfully, but it’s a trend that does cause some concern, since we all know that we don’t really “own” corporate-controlled cloud-based content.

Moving on, Universal has also included an excellent 78-minute making-of documentary that I believe dates back to the DVD days. It’s the kind of making-of that I really enjoy, with many key members of the cast and crew reflecting on their experiences shooting a film that went on to become a classic and paved the way for the 1950s nostalgia that was a bit part of the 1970s.

Finally, we have 23 minutes of screen tests, which are always fun to watch because they show cast members at their most raw, and the theatrical trailer.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Brad Cook


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