More American Graffiti (1979)
Starring Paul LeMat, Candy Clark, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Charles Martin Smith, Anna Bjorn, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins, Scott Glenn, James Houghton, Will Seltzer, Ken Place, Harrison Ford, Manuel Padilla, Jr., Mary Kay Place, Delroy Lindo, Rosanna Arquette, Naomi Judd and Wolfman Jack. Directed by B.W.L. Norton. From Universal Pictures.
New Years Eve, 1964
John Milner (LeMat) has seen his legend grow; he is now the king of the drag-strip. He is undefeated and is hoping to make a move to “the factory”; he hopes to become the new driver for the Hunt Brothers racing team. A girl John knows, Teensa (Place), arrives at the track with exchange student from Iceland, Eva (Bjorn). Eva stays to hang out with John though she speaks no English. John makes a move on Eva and she flees in rage. Adding to his woes, John finds out the Hunt Brothers just want to use his image in advertising.
John’s friendly rival is Roger Beckwith (Place). When the two face off to see who will go up against the Hunt Brothers, John wins but wrecks his car. In a very nice touch, Beckwith joins his crew with John’s and they repair John’s rail to challenge the factory. Eva, with whom John has made up, cheers as he pulls up to the line.
John blows the Hunt Brothers’ car away by a wide margin and is named Top Eliminator. After the celebrations, John remembers Ole (Erik Holland) who works at the track and might be able to translate for him with Eva. Through Ole, John tells Eva he loves her and says he wants to marry her. Eva smiles bashfully and makes a date to watch the Rose Bowl game with John on New Years Day. John realizes his life has reached a pinnacle. Wolfman Jack hails the new year on the radio in John’s ’32 Coupe and he drives off into the night to the strains of “Auld Lang Syne”.
New Years Eve, 1965
Terry Fields (Smith) is grudgingly enduring the filth of the jungle in the early days of the Vietnam war. “The Toad” is actively attempting to get a ticket home by any means necessary. Trying to shoot himself in the arm, Fields unloads his weapon towards camp and his unit thinks “Charlie” is on the attack. When Terry emerges sheepishly saying it was only his weapon discharging, his Commanding Officer (Richard Bradford) has to concoct a story for a visiting congressman. Enraged at Fields, the CO puts him on latrine duty.
Adding to Terry’s general disgust is his new Aircraft Commander Bob Sinclair (“Tough but fair”; Houghton) who volunteers the crew – including “Pharaoh” Joe Young (Hopkins) – for dangerous Medivac duty. During a particularly harrowing run, Joe the Pharaoh gets killed and Fields and Sinclair get stranded in the jungle. Terry drags Sinclair to safety when the latter freezes.
Watching his CO get drunk with the congressman while Terry cleans the crapper and Joe lies dead is the last straw. Terry asks his CO if – seeing its New Years Eve – he could be excused from latrine duty for the night. When the CO angrily denies his request, Terry carries out his plan. With help from Sinclair, Terry blows up the latrine so everyone will assume he is dead. Later, Sinclair brings Terry a well-supplied pack and sends him off. Terry joyfully declares the war over with him the winner and walks off through the jungle singing “Auld Lang Syne”.
New Years Eve, 1966
Debbie Dunham (Clark) used to be known as easy but now she has experienced true love with Lance (John Lansing). Romantic hippie Debbie wants to get married and she and Lance discuss it in the car – until they are pulled over by Officer Falfa (Ford) and Lance is thrown in jail. Debbie canvasses all their friends for Lance’s bail money but no one is interested in helping flakey Lance.
She finally gets the money from her boss (played by John Brent who played the pushy car salesman in American Graffiti) and bails Lance out. Debbie has plans to go to the Fillmore to see Electric Haze with Lance and Rainbow (Phillips) but Lance says he has to work to pay Debbie back for the bail money. While at the Fillmore, Debbie becomes friendly with the leader of Electric Haze, Newt (Glenn) and puts forward guitarist Lance as a candidate to fill a vacancy in the band.
Debbie winds up in the band bus as they head for a gig at a country bar in Oakland and then finds herself on stage playing tambourine. When she sees Lance there dancing with a girl, she loses her mind and punches him out which starts a brawl. Assessing the carnage afterwards, Debbie laments her break up with Lance but Newt suggests she join the band. Debbie rallies and smiles as she begins a new chapter in her life singing “Auld Lang Syne” with the boys in the band.
New Years Eve, 1967
Steve and Laurie Bolander (Howard and Williams) are going through a rough patch. The blush of their high school romance has eroded and they find themselves the harried parents of wild twin boys. Laurie wants to get a part-time job but Steve is not having it. They have a major blow-out and Laurie bolts to stay with her little brother, Andy (Seltzer) who’s at Berkeley. Andy is too busy planning a student demonstration to console his sister and he heads to campus. Andy calls home to Laurie asking her to bring him his wallet. She does but when she learns Andy wants to burn his draft card she is aghast and strongly stages a protest of her own.
As Laurie attempts to leave the campus, as she is not aligned with these kids, she is prevented by doing so by the phalanx of cops that storm the school. Laurie has to flee with Andy to hide in the school and avoid the savage treatment the police are dishing out. Hiding in a class room, Laurie looks out the window and sees Steve who has come looking for her. She is thrilled to see him and when he announces he is willing to compromise and tells her she can go to work in a couple years they are right back where they started. Their argument is cut short though as police arrive and take the two into custody, Laurie getting locked in a bus with the rest of the women.
When Steve talks to Laurie through the window of the bus the cops get indignant and start meting out more punishment. Steve and Andy and some others are able to overpower the police and jump into the bus where the girls have subdued the matron stationed inside. Steve drives the bus with all inside to a safe location and the kids get out to walk the sidewalks elated by their victory. Andy tells Republican-voting Steve he is now part of the revolution. Passing a store front, Steve and Laurie and Andy and his girlfriend Vikki (Carol Ann Williams) see a TV inside reporting live from New Years Eve celebrations. The foursome kiss the new year in and sing “Auld Lang Syne”.
First of all; sequels. There is an article to be written about sequels and the first thing we’d talk about is that they need to be evaluated differently. I understand that this is fan talk and would also be considered crazy talk in the industry. It is after all show business. Studios and producers want to make money, natch. A film is a hit so perhaps, they figure, the public wants more. It’s all about the dollars. For fans – or for me, at least – it’s often about the more. You have loved a film and its characters, its story, its tone and style and you want MORE. In light of this, the movie we’re talking about here has a very fitting title.
I would never be good at the business part of the film business. I often say that some movies, some sequels, don’t have to be successful – they just have to BE. In some cases, you just want to know what happened to these characters you’ve fallen in love with. If you accept what has happened to them in the sequel – if it makes sense to you – and the film is a good one, that’s just a bonus. For example, one of my Top 25 favourite films of all-time, Eddie and the Cruisers from 1983, has had its legacy tainted by a second-rate sequel. But I find I’ll often watch it after I’ve watched the original simply because it works as a sort of post-script and not because it is good on its own. It isn’t.
And trilogies or franchises are a different animal. Usually they have a built-in audience and so it is the intention of the filmmakers and the studio going in to make more than one; the assumption being that it has a guarantee of sorts. Also, the fact that many trilogies are often shot at the same time kind of make them more like one long movie in three or more parts. So, for a genuine sequel to succeed is somewhat rare. For every one of The Godfather, there are maybe four of Grease or The Sting or Caddyshack or Chinatown. Or the film we’re looking at today, More American Graffiti.
What more can I possibly say about American Graffiti? Everything I have said you can see at my series of articles on this seminal film by George Lucas, one of my Top 25 favourite films and a Labour Day tradition in my house. After the success of American Graffiti, there was talk that there should be a sequel. Lucas was game until he talked to some of his friends who advised against it. Lucas put sequel plans aside and focused on other things; like revolutionizing the movie business with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the Lucas name became ubiquitous after his space opera was released in ’77, the head of Universal thought the time for a sequel to AmGraf was ripe. Lucas was reluctant due to the many irons he had then in the fire. He was loathe to turn his original characters over to someone else but knew he couldn’t devote the time to it himself. Eventually, unknown filmmaker Bill W. Norton was chosen by Lucas to write a script and direct the film. George served as executive producer, editing Norton’s script and supervising the production.
Alright, stand back. William Norton was a screenwriter who had been a Communist since his teens and had been an officer in the Second World War. He wrote episodes of The Big Valley, exploitation films for my beloved American-International Pictures and other studios – among them I Dismember Mama (1972) – and many Burt Reynolds vehicles including two of my favourites, White Lightning and its sequel, Gator. He moved to Ireland in the mid-80s where he became troubled by the violence going on in that country. He decided to head back to the US, gather a truck-load of weapons and smuggle them to the IRA. He was caught and served 19 months.
Not able to return to the States, he settled in Nicaragua where he shot and killed a robber during an invasion of his home. He moved to Cuba in the Nineties but soon became disenchanted with Communism. He had his family smuggle him back in to the US and he settled in Santa Barbara, awaiting the FBI visit that never came. On his deathbed in 2010, a nurse asked him would she know any of his films. No, he said. “I don’t think your I.Q. is low enough”.
B.W.L. Norton, writer and director of our film, is William Norton’s son. The younger Norton’s life and career have been positively docile compared to his old man’s. Norton the Younger has directed and/or wrote some interesting films, though. Cisco Pike (1972) starred Kris Kristofferson, Outlaw Blues with Peter Fonda and Susan Saint James came in ’77 and perhaps his biggest claim to fame is having scripted the Seventies drive-in classic Convoy again with Kristofferson. Afterwards, Norton provided the story for the beach party reunion picture, Back to the Beach (1987). And that’s about it. B.W.L. Norton is a blip on the pop culture radar; the type we deal in here at Vintage Leisure. I wonder if B.W.L. Norton and I.A.L. Diamond were P.A.L.S.
I have talked about most of the cast of this movie in my articles on American Graffiti; you can check that out here. It bears noting that the intent of the producers was to feature Paul LeMat and Candy Clark in the sequel, the two actors who had made impressions in the first film. LeMat had portrayed the iconic John Milner and Candy garnered an Oscar nom for her first portrayal of Debbie. Both are central figures in More American Graffiti but neither could forge a substantial career in Hollywood afterward.
It is interesting that both Ron Howard and Cindy Williams agreed to appear in this movie as both had become stars on television in the interim. Ron’s appearance here reprising his role as Steve Bolander was the “final live-action theatrical film in which (he) would play a credited, named character”. Charles (no longer “Charlie”) Martin Smith is given some heavy lifting in this film and would go on to write and direct for film and television. Incredibly, Harrison Ford – a star at this point – agreed to play Bob Falfa again. Even more incredulously, Falfa is now a motorcycle cop who hassles longhairs (“I love my work”). Manuel Padilla, Jr. had played a Pharaoh in AmGraf and now has joined John Milner’s pit crew. Wolfman Jack is on hand again in a less prominent but overarching role as himself howlin’ on the radio.
One of the four storylines originally planned depicted Laurie Henderson and her brother Curt navigating changes in the Sixties. When Richard Dreyfuss – Curt in the original – would not sign on, two things happened. Ron Howard came on board and the Henderson family gained a child. Will Seltzer played Andy Henderson, a young kid caught up in student protest. Seltzer was the second choice to portray Luke Skywalker but ended up doing nothing.
No surprise Dreyfuss refused to be involved. By 1979, Dreyfuss was an unlikely star. He had appeared in Jaws in 1975 and followed that up with the noteworthy Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and that same year capped off a successful three-film string with The Goodbye Girl, work for which Dreyfuss would win an Oscar. So, reprising a previous role in a lowly sequel was never going to happen. Richard Dreyfuss had his sights set higher though he soon would enter a valley in his film career.
Newcomers to the action include pretty Anna Bjorn of Iceland. Anna was many things, the least of which was an actress. Model, graphic designer, yoga instructor, documentary filmmaker. Apparently, she provided the FBI with the information that lead to the capture of Whitey Bulger, a criminal depicted by Johnny Depp in Black Mass (2015). Scott Glenn appeared the same year as our film in Apocalypse Now and would go on to a solid film career. Mary Kay Place had worked steadily on TV but had just started in film at this time and she would go on to work regularly in Hollywood. I enjoyed her brother, Ken, as Milner’s rival and then partner, Beckwith, but Ken was no actor. Speaking of siblings, Cindy Williams’ sister, Carol Ann, plays Vikki, the cheerleader (“Kill a Commie for Your Mommy”) and Timothy Bottoms’ artist brother Ben has a small role. In another minor role, that of Ron, part of Milner’s pit crew, is Jonathan Gries, an actor who has amassed over 140 credits. I know him from Beverly Hills, 90210 but he has also been in Get Shorty (1995) and Napoleon Dynamite (2004).
Buck Houghton was a prolific television producer. His son, James, plays Sinclair, Terry the Toad’s Army buddy who helps Terry go AWOL. Delroy Lindo makes his second film appearance here, Rosanna Arquette makes her debut as “Girl in commune” and the late Naomi Judd sings on the bus. This is Judd’s first film appearance and she only made a handful of other films and those much later. She was more concerned, of course, with being one-half of the Judds with her daughter Wynonna.
The soundtrack of American Graffiti had two sequels before the film had one. As you might expect, More American Graffiti is loaded with music chosen by George Lucas. The songs are great but the soundtrack as a whole lacks the charm of the first film’s. It was easy with the first movie; choose songs released by the summer of ’62. But in this film spanning four years, you get a far larger variety. Hearing Andy Williams sing “Moon River” in the same film and on the same record as Cream doing “Strange Brew” is jarring. And a song like Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely” during the Vietnam sequences just seems odd. Folly to compare these two films but I will again. In AmGraf, the music and the Wolfman emanate naturally from the many passing cars, all of which are tuned to XERB. But in More AmGraf, the music just plays, all the time, from where we don’t know. Which somehow seems disingenuous. And the Wolfman’s appearances on the record – another double LP – sound contrived and don’t lead in to the songs well. He’ll announce the Capitols doing “Cool Jerk” and we get a beat or two before the song starts. Not radio-like.
This movie is nothing if not ambitious. You could say it was a bold move simply to green light this sequel. It was George Lucas who came up with the idea to film each of the four segments in a different visual style. 1964 is filmed to look like a 1950’s drag-racing film with a wide angle, 1965’s Vietnam sequences were shot in 16mm harkening back to the visuals from the television reports of the time. The psychedelia of 1966 was echoed in the split-screen technique borrowed from films like Woodstock and Elvis on Tour and the student demonstrations of the 1967 segment were shown in a style borrowed from student rebellion films of the late 1960s. I think this technique works as it makes it very easy to differentiate between the segments and reinforces the feeling of getting four distinct stories.
Milner in ’64 is a triumph of sorts. John goes through a bit of a valley with the disappointment with the factory and insulting Eva but then he emerges triumphant. It’s a nice touch that he joins forces with Beckwith and to have the other local drivers stalling for time so John can get his car ready. I’m also glad director Norton had John beat the Hunt Brothers’ car handily. Ole translating for John and Eva is so sweet and the viewer is overjoyed to see John winning on so many fronts.
Visually, I love how the explosions at the end of the first portion of the Vietnam scenes morph into psychedelic day-glo imagery. But the 1965 part of the film is problematic for me. You hippie-types might get mad at me but I cannot help but frown on Terry Fields. The insanity of Vietnam is an established fact that is driven home well in the film. The war was ludicrous and was no doubt peppered with idiots like Toad’s CO. It is easily argued that young men were sent to kill those at the other end of the world for murky reasons and to achieve an impossible goal. But consider that Toad fakes his death and walks away. Even Sinclair shakes Terry’s hand and wishes him luck – and then turns around and goes back to risking his life and fulfilling his duty. Sad at the end of American Graffiti to see that Terry Fields went Missing in Action. How sad for his family. Now think of him at the end of More American Graffiti, smiling and singing as he goes absent without leave. Too bad my family will think I’m dead. Oh, well. This just doesn’t sit well with me.
1966 may be the weakest segment and that may be down to the fact that of all the main players Candy Clark has the least to offer. Debbie really has become a romantic after her earlier depiction as a girl that gets around. The segment is saved somewhat by the concert scenes, the steady work of Scott Glenn and the comedy of speed-talker Felix played by Ralph Wilcox.
The 1967 part of the film has much to say about student unrest of the time and the role of police during demonstrations of this type in the 1960s. This, though, is almost trumped by how pretty and fresh Cindy Williams is here. And she plays Laurie competently. She is against the actions of her brother and his friends and gets jeered defending the president. But when she sees the savagery of the actions that the police take, she tends to at least understand where her brother is coming from. Significantly, at the end of the film, we are taken backwards from this point in 1967 to ’66, ’65 and finally to John Milner in 1964, the film ending where it began.
I started at the outset talking about more. With More American Graffiti you get the continuing adventures of Steve & Laurie, Milner and Toad and Debbie. For the many fans of American Graffiti, this is a good thing. The sequel, I’ll admit, is not spectacular but neither is it the dud that many have claimed it is. The film may have done better if it had not been released against some stiff competition and perhaps if it had been called something else, disassociating it from the beloved original. It also lacks the connected tightness of the first film. Because it spans years it, of course, feels more sprawling and less intimate. Most of the negativity, I would say, comes from the fact that it is a sequel to a masterpiece. There is something to consider, though, that is the most significant element of More American Graffiti.
Knowing that John Milner dies carries on from the end of the first film. As American Graffiti reaches its finale, your contented smile fades as you read of John’s fate. Adding this postscript was a tough jolt of reality from Lucas. This is amplified in the sequel. You sit down to start to watch More American Graffiti KNOWING death is coming. While you are still able to smile, laugh and enjoy the film, you KNOW that tragedy is imminent. This balance of radiance and darkness cannily echoes life in the 1960s. Many reminisce about the good ol’ days but as Billy Joel once said the good ol’ days weren’t always good. The Sixties is a time of nostalgia for many of us; oh, how we’d love to go back there. But many of the survivors from that decade would concur that it was anything but easy sailing. People were sent off to fight a war no one understood, marriages born in the glow of high school romance crumbled, young people seeking an alternate lifestyle were oppressed by the powers that were. And good friends were senselessly killed by drunk drivers.
So More American Graffiti is just as much about “The Sixties” as its predecessor was but it deals more in the realities of that time. It’s perhaps more about melancholy than it is about nostalgia. American Graffiti saved the realities of life for the final title card. With More American Graffiti they hang over the proceedings from the outset. But you watch anyways. Like life. You know tragedy and heartache are real and may come at any time but you live anyways. You go ahead and ask the Icelandic girl you just met to marry you. You go ahead and blow up the latrine so it rains detritus on your CO. You go ahead and see Electric Haze at the Fillmore and then join the band. You go ahead and steal the bus to save your wife and your marriage. In the end it’s clear; More American Graffiti is an honest look at life in the Sixties. With all of its joy and all of its pain.
- Mitchell, Matt. Hear Me Out: Why More American Graffiti Isn’t a Bad Movie. The Guardian. (2021)