The film that reinvented the soundtrack

Rare is the film that sparks a cultural reawakening. I won’t name names, but a certain national magazine gave the Coen Brothers’ excellent O Brother Where Art Thou? an F review when it was released in 2000. Not sure what movie the magazine’s reviewer was watching, but the film went on to box office success — a gross of more than $71 million against a budget of $26 million — was generally enjoyed by critics — 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — snared a couple of Oscar noms, and oh, by the way, touched off a resurgence of interest in bluegrass/Americana music that is still going strong today. It didn’t hurt that the film had a killer soundtrack that featured, among others, Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford and Gillian Welch and spawned a multi-platinum album (creeping up on eight million units sold).

It is for films such as O Brother Where Art Thou? that this column exists. From time to time I hope to shine a spotlight on a great work that brilliantly combines two of my favorite mediums — film and music. I’ll return to O Brother another time. Today’s topic is 1973’s American Graffiti (full disclosure: my favorite film of all time).

George Lucas knew how he wanted to color the scenes of his brilliant coming-of-age movie, and Star Wars fans everywhere can be glad he stood firm amid pressure from Universal. The studio wanted Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz to hire an orchestra to produce sound-alike versions of the various early rock and roll classics Lucas wanted for the film. Lucas wouldn’t hear of it, and he eventually won out, securing a budget of almost $90,000 to license his A-list of songs.

The music helped make the film, and the film generated enough coin to make Lucas a millionaire. That money helped Lucas fund Star Wars. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker fans can thank Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Beach Boys and the Platters. Note that Elvis Presley is conspicuous in his absence from the soundtrack. That’s because Universal paid a flat rate to music publishers that owned the rights to the songs Lucas wanted. That deal was OK with all but RCA, which kept the King out of American Graffiti. Too bad. Poor guy might have liked to have a movie credit he was actually proud of.

Lucas used the music to great effect. He meant business from the opening credits, blasting Bill Haley and His Comets’ classic “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” as the camera pans Mel’s Diner. Great songs enhance nearly every scene. When Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt first spots mystery woman Suzanne Somers in her white Thunderbird, the classic Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” is playing. When Ron Howard’s Steve and Cindy Williams’ Laurie are discussing breaking up during a slow dance at a high school hop, the song of choice is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” by the Platters.

In another memorable scene, as Charles Martin Smith’s Toad is getting the crap kicked out of him by two thugs that stole the car he had been entrusted by Steve to take care of, The Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” plays. Fortunately for Toad, Paul Le Mat’s John Milner came to his rescue. We could go on an on, but we’ll cut to the chase. Lucas ended the film brilliantly, setting up the epic drag race with Booker T and The MG’s “Green Onions,” adding heartbreak to the goodbye scene with The Spaniels’ “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite,” and playing the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long” over the closing credits.

Remember that cultural reawakening I mentioned at the beginning? American Graffiti rekindled interest in the 1950s and ’60s and produced imitators such as 1974’s The Lords of Flatbush, 1993’s Dazed and Confused and the television series Happy Days. Lucas paved the way for dozens of filmmakers to similarly utilize great songs to help tell their stories. The American Film Institute has ranked Graffiti No. 62 among its greatest 100 films of all time, high praise indeed. That 90 grand Universal shelled out for music rights was money well spent.