Movies We Like
At the peak of the disco era, the film version of the so-so Broadway musical Grease managed to be the perfect vehicle to celebrate 1950s nostalgia while becoming an iconic relic of '70s pop culture. Since its release it has become a rite of passage for young people—a romanticized version of teen rebellion and young love. It’s surprisingly raunchy, but very funny, with great music and very energetic choreography. More then Rebel Without a Cause or Blackboard Jungle it has actually taken over as the ultimate representation of 1950s teen life. While the earlier films were made by people who were afraid of that generation’s American teenager, Grease was created to celebrate them.
After his breakout performance that turned him into a massive superstar in Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta was as hot as could be. Grease proved to be an almost equally popular follow-up for him (through critically it took a drubbing). In the role of Danny Zuko, high school greaser and heart throb, Travolta was able to continue to showcase his flashy dance moves and add “passable singer” to his resume. More importantly he showed his flare for light comedy. As time passes it's easier to recognize the fun Travolta was having with his own image. He's kinda a mix of Elvis and TV’s Fonzie, but much more charming than both and, though cool, much more vulnerable. (Vulnerability proved to be a staple of Travolta’s acting bag of tricks.)
Australian transplant Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) is just trying to fit in to her new Southern California school, Rydell High. Though she had a summer fling at the beach with Danny she thinks he has gone off to a different school. Her only friend, Frenchie (Didi Conn) tries to introduce her to her girl gang, The Pink Ladies, lead by the cynical Rizzo (Stockard Channing) who thinks Sandy is too square to be a member. They have some fun at Sandy’s expense when they realize their friend Danny is her long lost love. After finally being reintroduced, Danny puts on a pose of indifference in front of his peers, breaking Sandy’s heart. Danny’s gang, The Tee-Birds, is composed of three nitwits and his right-hand-man, Kenickie (Jeff Conway) who has designs on building the ultimate drag race car. Sandy succumbs to the American dream and becomes a cheerleader and dates the head jock while Danny comes to his senses and tries to win her back.
A national dance show (spoofing American Bandstand) is going to broadcast live from Rydell and is hosted by Vince Fontaine (Edd “Kookie” Byrnes in a very funny performance). After failing in an effort to be a school athlete this becomes Danny’s chance to win back Sandy and gives Travolta ample chance to cut loose on the dance floor. This is the one time also that actual ‘50s music is played, as performed by the ‘50s nostalgia band, Sha Na Na (who went on to host their own TV show, ten years after actually playing at Woodstock).
Grease has a number of memorable songs including “Summer Nights,” “Greased Lightning,” “You’re The One That I Want,” and also the wonderful opening title theme song, sung by Frankie Valli (and written by head Bee Gee, Barry Gibb). Also memorable are Frankie Avalon performing “Beauty School Dropout” and Stockard Channing’s moving “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”
Though none of the so-called teenagers in the cast look remotely adolescent (Channing for example was almost in her mid-30s), they are chock full of youthful pent up sexual energy and as a kid I had no problem buying them as teens. The film is full of ‘50s references (Jerry Lewis, From Here to Eternity, Sandra Dee, The Blob—to the more obscure Pinky Lee and Ipana Toothpaste’s, “Bucky Beaver”). It also features 1950s TV stars (besides Byrnes there’s Sid Caesar and the wonderful Eve Arden as the school’s principle).
Grease was director Randal Kleiser’s first feature film after years of small screen work including the nice TV movies The Gathering and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble with Travolta. He would follow with another popular youth hit, The Blue Lagoon, and though he had nothing to do with the horrible Grease sequel (cleverly titled Grease 2) by the ‘90s, his output would be mired in direct-to-video blah, with titles like the Melanie Griffith flop, Shadow of a Doubt.
The original book for the stage version of Grease was strictly an homage to the fifties; the characters in the film version are much more drawn out. Songs and roles were changed (improved) and the role of the school nerd, Eugene, shrunk (though was still a funny performance by quintessential nerd actor Eddie Deezen). Of course Sandy was changed to an Australian to accommodate the casting of the popular pop singer Olivia Newton John. And Danny’s role was bulked up to fit the massive star wattage of Travolta (the lead vocals on “Greased Lightning” were taken from Kenickie and given to him to sing).
Besides being a total blast, the film version of Grease also has a through-line moving through it about conformity or non-conformity, trying to fit-in, belong, all that teenage angst... But maybe the coolest thing about Grease for a young person—besides all the sexual references, leather jackets, smoking, dancing, and cools cars—is the facts that never in the film do any of the parents appear. There are no lame adult subplots to get in the way of the fun in this flick. No matter the age of the actors, before the wave of teen actors and youth films in the 1980s Grease was one of the first films about teenagers that actually seemed to like teenagers.