More American Graffiti: A sequel with a special sound

Have you ever heard of the Wilhelm Scream? It’s a pre-recorded sound effect used in many films, usually to express surprise when a character falls from a great height, is shot, hurt, etc. While the scream was first used in Distant Drums (Raoul Walsh, 1951), it was named after Private Wilhelm, a character in The Charge at Feather River (Gordon Douglas, 1953). Sheb Wooley, who played an uncredited part in Distant Drums, is known to be the voice of the now commonly used Wilhelm Scream. While the two films I named are not very well known, that sound effect was used in a ton of films, including The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), Titanic (James Cameron, 1997), Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) and more.

Sheb Wooley

That name, Wilhelm Scream, still doesn’t ring a bell? Listen to it here. Now, you are up to date.

But why am I talking about that? Gill from Real Weegie Midget Reviews had the creative idea to create a blogathon celebrating that voice effect! The Wilhelm Scream Blogathon is the occasion for various bloggers to write about a film using that sound effect. And the options are numerous. While looking for ideas on an IMDb list, I stumbled across a title I had seen a long time ago: More American Graffiti (Bill L. Norton, 1979). That was the sequel to George Lucas’s semi-autobiographical cult film American Graffiti (1973). I had seen both years ago and remembered really liking the sequel (although the critics pretty poorly received it) and thought that would be an excellent occasion to revisit it. Plus, these days, I’m sort of in a mood to re-watch films I had only seen once and a long time ago.

Of course, the idea is not only to talk about the Wilhelm Scream because that lasts two seconds in the film but to discuss the film as a whole and see what eventually leads to a WilhelmSpoiler/no spoiler: it’s chaotic. Anyway, unlike its predecessor, More American Graffiti is a forgotten film. So hopefully, that will maybe make you want to watch it or give it another chance if you already saw it.

***

In preparation for my viewing of More American Graffiti, I re-watched American Graffiti since none of the films was fresh in my memories (except for some specific scenes). American Graffiti was George Lucas before Star Wars and perhaps his more personal project. Not only Lucas directed the film, but Francis Ford Coppola produced it. A fine duo made in New Hollywood. The film premiered in 1973, and the story takes place in 1962, hence its tagline “Where were you in 62?” Personally, it’s one of my favourites (although I wasn’t at all born in ’62). Set in Modesto, California, it tells the last evening of the summer vacations of high school graduates as they enjoy, for the last time, the freedom of their youth. Ok, we could resume the film as “people driving around Modesto and meeting each other”.

But what’s more important and noticeable about it isn’t the story itself but rather the ambience of the early 60s provided by the setting (the cars, the restaurant: Mel’s Drive-In) and the music. The songs constantly play on a radio program hosted by DJ Wolfman Jack. The soundtrack is definitely among the film’s highlights, beginning with Bill Haley & His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock (18 years after Blackboard Jungle – the first film to use rock music). We also hear Runaway by Del Shannon, That’ll Be the Day by Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Surfin’ Safari by The Beach Boys, Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, Teen Angel by Mark Dinning and more. The film also includes an impressive cast composed of Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark (nominated at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actress), Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins and Harrison Ford, who later played in Lucas’ Star Wars franchise and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The film was among the firsts for some of these actors and helped launch their careers.

“I won won won won wonder why!”

***

Now on to the sequel, More American Graffiti. Directed by a different person, the film’s execution was much more different, and I think that’s what I like about it, as it doesn’t feel repetitive. Released in 1979, six years after American Graffiti, the story is divided into four periods, all on New Year’s Eve: 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967.

The year 1964 revolves around John Milner, the character played by Paul Le Mat, the “rebel” of American Graffiti. He is now a drag-strip racer who, during a competition on New Year’s Eve, meets drag-strip racer Eva (Anna Bjorn), who catches his eye. His high school friends, Steve (Ron Howard), Laurie (Cindy Williams), Terry (Charles Martin Smith) and Debbie (Candy Clark), are seen briefly at the beginning. Terry, in a military uniform, is about to go to Vietnam. Steve and Laurie are now married, and the latter is pregnant.

1965 revolves around Terry Fields, known as Terry-the-Toad, as he serves in Vietnam. There, he meets John Young (Bo Hopkins), who is from the same town and the leader of the greaser gang The Pharaohs. Interestingly, while both characters are in American Graffiti, we only see them interacting with each other in that sequel. Among the bullets and explosions, Terry, more than ever, wants to leave the battlefield, discovering how that it is not his war.

In 1966, we’re back with Debbie, who is now a member of a hippie gang and bears a look pretty different from the one in American Graffiti. She’s now dating another hippie, Lance Harris (John Lansing), who has the talent to get into trouble. She eventually befriends members of the band Electric Haze, played by Scott Glenn, Ralph Wilcox and musician Doug Sahm, while trying to promote Lance’s guitar talents. Harrison Ford (as Bob Falfa), now a policeman, plays a minor role at the beginning of the 1966 part.

1967 introduces Steven Bolander and Laurie Henderson, now an unhappy married couple with two children. After a fight, Laurie decides to go to her brother Andy (Will Seltzer – originally played by Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti). He and his girlfriend, Vikki Townsend (Carol-Ann Williams), are anti-Vietnam War protesters. Laurie finds herself at the centre of violent protestations despite herself.

***

It’s essential to indicate that the different years are shown in alternation. We are in 1964 for a few minutes, then 1965, 1966, 1967 and then it comes back to 1964 and so on. I believe it’s an excellent way to keep a certain dynamic pace and for us not to forget too much of what previously happened. We learn what happened to some characters during the different years or what might have happened to them.

Aside from that “sketch” concept, what distinguishes More American Graffiti from its predecessor is probably the editing and how the image is used to differentiate each year. That is particularly noticeable in the 1965 sequence, using a super 16 mm film, in the style of the news footage used by war reporters. Then, 1966 uses split screens with different shots from the same action to show two events taking place simultaneously but in distinct locations.

1965 and 66 also distinguish themselves from 64 and 67 with their uncommon cinematography. By the way, the cinematographer was Caleb Deschanel, the father of actresses Zooey and Emily Deschanel. The ’65 sequence in the news footage style uses a very grainy image. It goes with the imperfection of what filming war action could be. It adds a certain realism to the thing. In 1966, the colourful image reflects the psychedelic ambience of that year. According to IMDb, Lucas, who acted as an executive producer on the film, wanted to make a darker and more complex sequel, hence using different image formats. Director Bill Norton thought alternating between the years and using different formats wasn’t a good idea. Lucas later admitted he was right. In my opinion, that’s a question of taste and a style that you either like or dislike. On my side, I like it and didn’t find it confusing (it could be for other films tho, but here, I think it works). But I understand why some people might not like it.

If American Graffiti launched the careers of some of the young actors that composed its casting, More American Graffiti marked their comeback. For some, it was after developing a significant career in films and television. The first one we can think about is Harrison Ford, who plays a small part, almost a cameo, in that sequel. In the ’73 film, he was Bob Falfa, John Milner’s rival. In the ’79 one, he is now Officer Bob Falfa, the cop who arrests Lance Harris after catching him with a joint. By 1979, Ford had played in the first instalment of the Star Wars franchise, and we know that Han Solo is among his most iconic roles. On her side, Cindy Williams had gained fame with the sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, which respectively first aired in 1975 and 1976. Candy Clark visited science fiction in 1976 and co-starred with David Bowie in The Man Who Felt to Earth (dir. Nicolas Roeg). Our biggest regret concerning Bill Norton’s film is that Richard Dreyfuss, who had the leading role in American Graffiti, was replaced by Will Seltzer. It’s not that Seltzer is a lousy actor (as a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything else). But he’s not Dreyfuss, you know. Dreyfuss was also a well-established actor by 1979, having starred in Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), Close Encounter of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) and The Goodbye Girl (Herbert Ross, 1977), which earned him his Oscar for Best Actor. Needless to guess, he probably had other plans. Luckily, we can console ourselves because Scott Glenn, playing a hippie band member, was added to the casting and plays a much-appreciated character. The 1966 sequence is perhaps my favourite. Note that Rosanna Arquette plays a small uncredited role in that sequence. That was the first film in which she appeared.

Scott Glenn on the right

If Richard Dreyfuss’s absence is among the most significant flaws (in my opinion), one of its top qualities is the music. Like American Graffiti, it never stops and plays on the nostalgia effect. And if you’re an old soul like me who loves late 60s pop and rock, I urge you to watch the film. On my side, I liked the choice of music much more than in the first film. Among the numerous hits that compose that soundtrack, there’s Light my Fire by The Doors, Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan, Stop in the Name of Love by The Supremes, The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel, and more. One of the best scenes of the film, in the 1967 sequence, involves Cindy Williams and a bunch of other ladies singing Baby Love by The Supremes.

And who says music says sound, and who says sound says Wilhelm Scream. Yeah, we’re finally on to that. And I have a surprise for you: there are TWO of them in the film! The first one occurs during the 1965 sequence in Vietnam as the American soldiers play football. The second one is heard during a bar fight in the 1966 sequences. You have to be attentive not to miss them as there is already a lot of noise in the background. However, that allows the scream to merge better into the sound dimension of the scenes and appear more natural. Notice that, on both occasions, the sound effect was used on extras and not on any of the main actors. It’s interesting to know that sound designer Ben Burtt, who collaborated with Lucas and Spielberg, discovered the original recording of the Wilhelm scream. So it’s not surprising that projects involving Lucas used the sound effect. Indeed, as said before, not only More American Graffiti used the scream but also Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Burtt helped popularize the sound by including it in the first Star Wars film.

Mark Hamill, Ben Burtt and CPO3 at the 1978 Academy Awards

Even tho More American Graffiti was poorly received by critics and not a very big box office hit, I believe it deserves a chance. For many reasons, it’s a unique film and far from boring. If you like a sequence less, it moves fast enough to the next one! As I said before, that format might confuse some, but, you know, it’s not Inception either… And if you are doing a Wilhelm Scream marathon (I guess some people do that), you shouldn’t skip it!

A big thanks to Gill for hosting that fun blogging event! Make sure to read the other entries:

Day 1-2

Day 3

See you!