George Lucas used to be a good filmmaker. He was at his best when he had little money and lots of help. This, his second film after THX 1138, was definitely made in those conditions. His script was rewritten several times by other people, he consulted with people like Francis Ford Coppola, and was given a ridiculously small budget and timeframe. Perhaps he was the soul of the movie; many of the characters’ stories were based on his own life, and he pushed very hard for the title and the sub-A-list cast. Still, according to the making-of feature, his directing style was very minimal. He basically just let the characters do whatever they wanted to do, and kept filming them until he saw something he liked. As such, his limited input helped to make the movie what it is.
The movie is comprised of several interweaving stories of young men and women in the early 1960s, driving around in fancy cars and listening to rock n’ roll in what Lucas called their “mating ritual.” At first I found it hard to like this theme because it’s something so completely foreign to me that I can’t really relate, but eventually I warmed to the characters as it became clear that they could be real people with real flaws. It reminded me a bit of The Breakfast Club like that. Perhaps the most important part of the movie is the music; popular songs from the period are used more like an ambient score than pretty much any film before it, and the traditional score is completely absent. Lyrical themes play into the scenes themselves while the sound is adjusted to fit the environment and the mood. It really works well.
I didn’t know much about the movie coming into it, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Richard Dreyfuss in what could be considered to be the lead role, Ron Howard in another, and even Harrison Ford with a smaller but important part, all of them much younger than I’d ever seen them before. This was really their break-out movie, and they all put out some great performances.
I kind of wish Star Wars hadn’t been as successful as it was so Lucas could have continued being a poor but good filmmaker. Maybe then the prequels wouldn’t have happened.