When Lucas was coming up in Modesto, riding around in cars, listening to rock and roll was what it all came down to. That was what they lived and breathed for, and it permeated their culture. And as rock and roll exploded into popularity up through the post-war years, soon becoming as inseparable from cars as gas, so did the DJs that provided the jokes, opinions, advice and of course the soundtrack for cruising. They would soon become the heroes of a new breed; the youth culture.
As Lucas neared the end of his days as a student, his work grew ever more ambitious in both scope and subject. He switched gears from his earlier tone poems and abstract shorts, to make a 24-minute documentary short called The Emperor, centering on the legendary southern California DJ, Bob “The Emperor” Hudson; a nickname The Emperor had bestowed upon himself, and not one in any way related to the later Star Wars character of the same title. This film was a love letter to the playful , seductive powers of radio, and in particular of course The Emperor himself. Lucas’s collaborator Paul Golding later explained:
With The Emperor we wanted to visualize a radio show, and so we knew that we would need shots with Emperor Hudson but we also realized how important actual music would be in the film. So we all got together and assembled a play list of the songs that we wanted to be in the film.
The film itself is an inventive pseudo-documentary crosscutting between Hudson himself, an 40-something heavyset man with a larger-than-life personality well worth the screen time he’s afforded.
It opens on a quote: “Radio is fantasy…” attributed to Hudson. Then it cuts to sexy girls (miming on a USC soundstage to playback of from sound bites Hudson used on the show): “To pulverize Pasadena, to numb North Hollywood, to wow Westwood, to bombard Baldwin Park. Here he is, his royal Majesty, The Emperor Hudson!”, before going to a typical Lucas-as-a-student shot; long lens head-on a Rolls-Royce surrounded by motorcycles riden by uniformed motorcycle officers (one at least looks to be fellow classmate Walter Murch). It’s a shot very reminiscient again of that amazing opening shot in Jean-Claude Labrecque’s 60 Cycles.
The Rolls-Royce pulls over, and out step two young military generals (Lucas and Golding in costume), followed by Hudson himself. They enter a building and Hudson sits down in his studio ready to broadcast. As he DJs his show on morning radio, it intercuts various scenes set to his banter, cars on the freeway, kaleidoscopic images of young people’s faces, snippets of commercials or sound bites used on the show, other people talking about Emperor Hudson and so forth.
At one point the soundtrack cuts to a couple of characters with faux Mexican accents set to a series of stills, one of them is John Milius wearing a huge sombrero (seemingly the same sombrero he would wear in the 1969 marketing photos for American Zoetrope, the production company Coppola and Lucas founded).
Those were just commercials that we wanted to include. That and the Camaro commercials were just very popular spots at the time on the radio. That's not the voice of John Milius in the banana thing, it was Richard Walter [ed. another classmate whom Lucas would later hire to write American Graffiti, only to re-write it himself when he disliked the result], and George did the animation in the Camaro spot. What was funny about the original Camaro commercial that you heard on the radio was that they never told you that a Camaro was a car! We thought it was appropriate to make it a rhinoceros instead.
Filming finished over the course of ten weeks, Paul Golding elaborates in this interview with TV Store Online:
PG: When George and I made The Emperor... He was one semester ahead of me at USC so he got to be the director and I worked as the editor and the sound man on the film. We made it for class and it was only supposed to be a ten minute film done in black and white and in sync sound. We were both listening to the Emperor Hudson radio show at the time, and we both tried to call each other at the exact same time that we were listening to his show because we both knew that we had to make a film about this guy. We started to work on it, but it was only supposed to be only ten minutes long, but both George and I were rather ambitious and saw this as a thirty minute documentary with commercials. This lead to a lot of problems for us with one of the teachers at school. Finally, the school gave in and allowed us to shoot more film on the agreement that the final film would only be ten to twelve minutes in length max.
When you watch The Emperor you'll see that the titles appear in the middle of the film, and when we screened the film for the first time in the big room at U.S.C and those titles came on the screen you could hear this wave of sadness and disappointment in the crowd because everyone knew what we were going through with this film. They all knew about the battles that we had been fighting with the school to shoot this and they had thought that we had caved in on the school's demands. So when the titles finished on screen and the film kept playing, you could hear everyone in the big room get excited as the film kept going because every minute of it past those titles was our deliberate attack on the facility.
TVSO: Did the two of you have any trouble getting Bob "Emperor" Hudson on board to be in the film?
PG: Yeah, we did have quite a bit of trouble with that. He had no idea what was going to happen with us being in his studio and he didn't want anyone in there screwing up his radio show. The first day we went into his studio, we went in there with three cameras and we had said before that we just needed to get everything that we could get and then we'd make up the rest with the soundtrack. When he saw that we didn't screw anything up he started to get a little friendly with us, and then he became more friendly, and eventually he offered to do that little interview with us in the radio station breakroom that you see in the film. There's even a gag in the film were he turns directly to the camera and says, "George Camera…”. He meant to say George Lucas…
TVSO: You even gave him a writing credit on the film...
PG: Right, well, he came up with everything he said in the interview. He was an amazing personality. There was no one else on the radio at the time that talked like him, and I think George and I were lucky to have had the opportunity to document him.
Explored in both Herbie and 1:42.08 the year before, Lucas’s love of cars would resurface again in American Graffiti, as would his love of radio, the real subject of The Emperor, and how it acted in particular as a role model and medium for the mating rituals of kids in cars. Although both The Emperor and American Graffiti investigate radio as an illusion on par with the medium of film itself. By Lucas’s own words, the same notions that had led to The Emperor, would eventually percolate into American Graffiti.
I had always been interested in the phenomenon of radio and originally wanted to do [American Graffiti] with Wolfman Jack, but I didn’t know where he was. I was amused by the fact that people have a relationship with a deejay that they’ve never seen but to whom they feel very close because they’re with him everyday. For a lot of kids, he’s the only friend they’ve got.