Produced by: Robert Stigwood, Allan Carr
Written by: Allan Carr, Bronte Woodard
Edited by: John F. Burnett, Robert Pergament
Cinematography by: Bill Butler
Music by: Michael Gibson
Songs by: Jim Jacobs, Warren Casey, John Farrar, Barry Gibb (theme)
Starring: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Didi Conn, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, Kelly Ward, Jamie Donnelly, Dinah Manoff, Eddie Deezen, Susan Buckner, Eve Arden, Dody Goodman, Sid Caesar, Alice Ghostley, Edd Byrnes, Sha-Na-Na
Based on the stage musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
I never liked this movie growing up, and before recently, it had been years since I actually gave it another shot, mostly because it’s been a very long while since any of my family members foisted it upon me. However, after now seeing it for the first time since I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show in full, I think I finally understand why people like Grease now, too. Some of you may think these two films are polar opposites of each other, but they’re really more like peers, both being quirky, campy 1970s musicals, complete with subversive, sexual subject matter. Yes, Grease really is kind of subversive, albeit in a much less obvious way than Rocky Horror. The original stage production was, in fact, a noticeably raunchier depiction of 1950s youth culture, purposely contrary to the idealization and sanitization of the era that prevailed in the public consciousness. It’s actually kind of baffling that there’s a high school production version of this. How bowdlerized would that end up being?
Now, let me first clarify that, while I have not seen any stage versions of Grease, I have seen the film plenty of times before and have done my research, so, yes, I know that the film adaptation is somewhat of a different beast from its original stage counterpart, excising some of the original songs and adding new ones that better suited the talents of its less theatrically inclined cast (while providing the studio a few singles they could release to market on their own). The subversive content was also toned down so as to ensure that maximum profits could be made from the film medium’s wider audience potential. The plan worked, of course, and Grease became a massive hit, enduring in the public consciousness far more than even the stage version. Its original songs became so popular that many stage productions (and the recent live TV production based on it) now incorporate them into their production so as to not disappoint audiences raised on the film, for whom many of the original songs will now be “new.” So, yeah, the film is still a big deal. However, understanding its significance and popularity aside, did my recent viewing change me from my adolescent feelings towards it?
First, let me first address something that I know hasn’t changed: my perception of the film’s ending. In particular, the fact that it’s kind of a disappointment and more than a little screwed up. Grease essentially perpetuates the idea that people should change themselves in order to really achieve the affection of others, which I think we can all agree is fairly screwed up. Sure, the film is, as discussed, a send up of unrealistic 1950s sanitized idealism, and so the celebration over Sandy’s sexual transformation in the end is likely ironic. On the other hand, the depiction is also kind of genuine, too – a symbol of acknowledging one’s sexual desires and willingness to acknowledge the desires of others. Which isn’t inherently bad, but, I think the film takes it too far, and the execution of the gesture is all kinds of messed up. Is Sandy wanting to change herself out of genuine desire, or is she just changing herself to fit Danny’s idealized version of her and win his attention away from the girl he once dated? The song that accompanies this scene makes a big deal out of Sandy still having some demands for Danny to meet, as well, suggesting that this is more of a compromise, but it still reads as superficial. I’m afraid that, at best, this is itself a relic of tone deaf 1970s sensibilities.
Setting that aside, however, let’s address the other major problem I had with the film: the story. Particularly, the fact that I really didn’t care about most of the characters in the story beyond the central couple, Sandy and Danny, who occupy so much screentime I didn’t have much choice, and Rizzo, the leader of the Pink Ladies, whose bad reputation and potential baby problems make her far more nuanced than anyone else. She also happens to be played by the film’s MVP, Stockard Channing. Along with the admittedly winsome leads Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, she is one of the few who is able to transcend the fact that she does not look like she’s in high school. (I’m looking at you, 32-year-old Michael Tucci!) Unfortunately, other characters, including Rizzo’s boyfriend Kenickie and dropout Frenchy, have their moments, but never feel compelling as characters. Both of them have interests that lend themselves to major musical numbers, but neither character even sings lead. Kenickie barely interacts with Rizzo until the finale, while danny sings the song about his own car. Frenchy leaves school off screen and is then sung to by an imaginary guardian angel who appears out of nowhere for one scene. Both are non-participants in their own story arcs, essentially. Meanwhile, the film also expends an unnecessary amount of its time on a televised school dance that barely moves any plot forward. At least it has a lot of dancing in it, I suppose, but this is about where I started to nearly tune out.
Luckily, there is one area that saves the film from being a complete bore, and it’s the area where it counts the most when it comes to cheesy musicals like this: the songs. While it does end on two of the most obnoxiously catchy songs ever written, and I can’t say that I like “Greased Lightnin’” all that much, either, I can’t fault the movie for any of the others, including the Barry Gibb-penned, movie-specific theme song that plays over the animated credits. It’s a complete anachronism with its disco sound, but no matter. I also very much enjoyed the two big character-specific songs, both of which replaced their stage counterparts: “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Sandy.” They’re pure pop single tracks made for marketing, and yet they totally work in context of both the plot and as standalone works, Travolta’s odd falsetto included. The songs are incredibly catchy and easily sung along to. It’s no wonder that the film was re-released to theatres in a special sing-along form back in 2010.
And that’s really the film’s true saving grace: the music. Even if you think “The One That I Want” is the most annoying collection of sounds in the world, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment and enjoy yourself, in spite of it. Grease is a cult classic for a reason, and it’s not because it’s a film that’s so bad it’s good. I found that it’s actually decent, fun entertainment, featuring well-cast leads, and a tone that is amusingly both filthy and wholesome all at once. I may not fully appreciate it, like some fans, but I get it now and take back all my begrudging remarks regarding those who love the movie so much. Of course, now I’ve gotta see what all the fuss is about with that hastily made sequel…
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5