Every now and then, you reach a moment where you realize you’ve never written a single word about a movie that is simply part of the fabric of your filmgoing life. “Grease” is a movie that’s been a major part of the pop culture landscape since I was eight years old, and the release of this new sing-a-long edition of the film is a perfect opportunity to finally write about the movie and its place in the pantheon.
There are many things I love about “Grease.” I love the film’s energy. I love the movie-star charisma of John Travolta in the lead. I love the “am I doing this right?” hesitancy of much of Olivia Newton-John’s performance. I love the fact that the film is so unapologetically filthy. I love Randall Kleiser’s super widescreen pop candy composition. And, yes, like many people, I love the soundtrack. I’ve heard it enough times that I have the entire thing internalized. It’s one of those pieces of pop culture ephemera that is simply hardwired into my brain at this point.
When I first saw the film, I was young enough that I didn’t get how sexual the entire thing was. I just responded to the broad strokes of the story between Danny (Travolta) and Sandy (Newton-John). It’s a simple love story, with such clear and simple obstacles set up for them to overcome, and that’s what Paramount bought from Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. That’s what ran on Broadway. It’s similar, and some of the story beats are the same, but it’s raunchier, rougher, nowhere near as polished as a love story.
The film, though, is a substantially reworked thing, and it is incredibly savvy as a commercial movie. John Travolta was coming off of the enormous hit of “Saturday Night Fever,” so of course they hired Barry Gibb to write a disco theme song for the film that they could play on the radio, even though the film is set in the ’50s and trades on a ’50s nostalgia that was huge at that particular point in the ’70s. It’s funny… as a kid, I looked at stuff set in the ’50s, and I thought of that as ancient history. It had only been 20 years since all of that was real when they were making “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti” and this and everything else that romanticized the era when the filmmakers who suddenly owned pop culture had been kids. It’s been 30 years since “Grease” came out, and these days, we’ve got nostalgia for nostalgia. People my age have no first-hand experience of the ’50s, but because of the pop culture of our own childhood, we feel familiar with the ’50s in a very intimate way.
But of course, it wasn’t the real ’50s. “Grease” isn’t real at all. It is a very old-school musical, and the fresh coat of paint applied by Paramount so they could turn it into a “sing-a-long” event is well-done. There are tiny stylistic flourishes from the very start, when Sandy and Danny meet on the beach and have their love afffair for the summer, there are cartoon hearts that erupt from the scenery. The lyrics don’t actually appear onscreen ’till “Summer Lovin'” begins, which takes a while. But as soon as the familiar strains of that song begin, these little stylistic touches add up quickly, and the audience in our screening last night was more than willing to follow. People sang. People danced. People applauded each time a favorite character made an entrance. It was a great atmosphere, and it was obvious that the people in that theater mostly knew the film as well as I do or better.
Even so, seeing a very good movie on the bigscreen with an audience like that is always a different experience than watching it at home. There’s been some controversy in my house about this one because I think my wife has her priorities all screwed up regarding what is or isn’t appropriate to show the kids. She gets worked up about me showing a Godzilla movie to Toshi, who has a genuine interest in giant monsters, but she’s fine showing him “Grease” over and over, even though it is ultimate the story of a girl who learns that she’s got to give her boyfriend sex if she hopes to keep him. That’s it. That’s the movie’s entire thrust, pun fully intended, and yet people treat it like this harmless little bit of fluff. There are jokes about gangbangs, broken condoms, boners, masturbation, and a pregnancy scare subplot. Whenever this one plays at home, I wince my way through a lot of movie, even though all the kids want to do is sing and dance when the musical numbers come on. In a theater, surrounded by other adults enjoying the film and genuinely understanding what they’re watching, I’m able to enjoy the film in a different way, more fully, and I am struck again by what amazing chemistry this cast had together.
Travolta, in particular, was right in the middle of that first flush of movie stardom that made him so famous, and this movie is a big part of what went right. His performance in this is pure pop idol swagger, from the zoom-in reveal of him on campus to that smile of his right before the last few notes of “Summer Lovin'” to the google-eyed reaction he has when he first sees Sandy on campus. It could have easily gone a different way, since Travolta wasn’t the only one to play Danny Zuko on Broadway. Barry Bostwick originated the role, and he did, after all, star in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” just a few years earlier. Richard Gere was an earlier Danny Zuko as well, and he and Travolta were frequently competing for roles at that point. The thing is, Travolta was the perfect choice here, and after seeing this and “Saturday Night Fever,” if I’d been a studio executive of that era, my first priority would have been to find a new musical for John Travolta to star in every year without fail. He was born to be a song and dance man, and especially in his young and pretty days. The joy he exhibits in every single musical moment in the film extends through the entire rest of the cast, from the top-billed to the background dance extras. I would call the movie “rowdy” if I had to sum it up in one word, spilling over with unfettered energy, and Travolta personifies that.
Without Newton-John, though, it wouldn’t work. I honestly think much of my romantic life was set in motion when I first saw and imprinted on “Grease,” because Olivia Newton-John remains a sort of perfect ideal pretty cheerleader type, the ideal that I’ve always compared women to in some sense. For all film fans, there are those early sexual icons who set the standards for us, and every generation has their own. What I think works best about Newton-John in the film, aside from the fact that she’s so fresh-scrubbed pretty, is the way she’s Travolta’s onscreen opposite in terms of how comfortable they are. She was not a professional actor, and was hired for her pop idol status, and she’s game for every single song. In the acting moments, though, her awkward discomfort ends up working perfectly for the role she’s playing, and if anything, it makes her even more endearing.
There are a lot of performances here that make the movie special. Stockard Channing probably got the loudest reactions all night long, and I can’t blame the audience for that. Rizzo is pure sarcastic majesty, and she plays the sweaty dirty girl with ridiculous confidence. Jeff Conaway, who actually played Danny Zuko on Broadway, makes a perfect Keneckie. I particularly like the way they cast lots of ’50s stars to play the adults in the film, so we get Eve Arden and Sid Caesar and Ed Byrnes and Frankie Avalon and Joan Blondell in the film, which led me as a kid to try to figure out who those people were and why they made my parents laugh when they showed up. I love the use of Eddie Deezen, the all-purpose ’50s nerd for discriminating ’70s filmmakers.
Paramount had a camera crew in the theater with us last night, and during “Greased Lightning,” the houselights came up so they could film pretty much the entire theater dancing and singing. I’ll just say this about the dancing… the sort of amazing spontaneous choreography that happens in musicals never happens in real life, and what you really get is a sort of enthusiastic flailing while people bellow their favorite lyrics from the songs. And that’s all you really need, because the point isn’t entertaining others… it’s participating with this movie, interacting with it and with your neighbors in the theater. I wasn’t seated with anyone I know, so it was interesting to see just how ready everyone was to look silly in front of total strangers. Everyone sang with total abandon, and it was great hearing people automatically divide up the gender roles on the songs, so there was a real call-and-response going on within the songs.
In the end, seeing this in this environment made me extra-thankful that I was seeing the original film with its negative freshly cleaned and oh-so-pretty instead of seeing a remake. This was a studio having some fun with an asset that is obviously beloved by a very passionate fanbase, and in exactly the right way. It was pure joy for everyone in that theater, and I hope you get the chance to enjoy the experience yourself in the weeks ahead. Thanks to Paramount for the invite.
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