WFTB Score: 5/20
The plot: Young Englishman Michael Carrington is the fish out of water at Rydell High, now the domain of T-Bird leader Johnny Nogerelli and his cronies, and his former squeeze Stephanie, looking for a cool rider with the rest of her Pink Ladies. When Michael sees Stephanie it’s love at first sight, but his attempts to fit into her world bring him both excitement and extreme danger.
Although its detractors will point out that the original film of Grease was a pale imitation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s coarse stage show, with family-friendly performances and a number of sappy, over-produced new songs, there can be no doubt whatsoever about its success, spawning a massive-selling soundtrack album and proving so enduring that it was given a 20th Anniversary re-release. It was fairly inevitable, therefore, that a sequel would follow, the role of directing given to Patricia Birch, choreographer of the original Grease. As director, well, let’s say she makes a good choreographer.
Although some of the staff at Rydell High are retained (Eve Arden and Dody Goodman reprise their dotty roles in the principal’s office, and Sid Caesar returns as Coach Calhoun), an almost entirely new cast take up the jackets left by Travolta, Newton-John etc. as the 1961 term begins at Rydell High. Leader of the T-Birds is Johnny Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed), a feisty Italian with a quiff that puts Danny Zuccho’s to shame. Johnny’s backed up by a trio of equally sexed-up buddies: Ghost (Christopher McDonald), Louis (Peter Frechette) and Davey (Leif Green).
The Pink Ladies are bound by a code that they only date bikers, but even though this is good enough for Paulette (Lorna Luft), Rhonda (Alison Price) and Sharon (Maureen Teefy), leader Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer) is not convinced and spends most of the film at loggerheads with Johnny. Even so, when brainy Brit Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) turns up and shows a keen interest, she insists (in song) that she will only accept a ‘Cool Rider’ as her lover. What’s a guy to do?
With the love rivals established and a sub-plot featuring the characters vying for a talent show prize, acne-scarred Dennis Stewart returning as vicious, snarling biker Balmudo and Didi Conn’s Frenchy sporadically popping up as Michael’s cousin, you have the perfect material for a re-run of Grease, swapping cars for bikes, a new girl for a new boy, and having him transform rather than her.
What the makers of Grease 2 have also done is swap the authentic rock’n’roll and memorable new songs of the original for badly-written bilge. Words can barely do justice to the crassness of Prowlin’, Reproduction or the We Go Together clone, Rock-a-Hula Luau. Musically and lyrically the material is poor, relying on playground innuendo – at the bowling alley, ‘We’re gonna score tonight!’ – or forcing embarrassing rhymes, not least the famous coupling of ‘cycle’ and ‘Michael’. The highlights, such as they are, are probably to be found at either end of the film – Back to School Again and We’ll Be Together – but since these are separated by nearly two hours of forgettable nonsense it’s debatable whether you’ll remember the start by the time you get to the end. That said, there is something to be said for the pure trash value of a line like ‘It’ll be like we’re doing it – for Disneyland!’
Things don’t improve when the cast stop singing. It’s one thing to say that the T-Birds and Pink Ladies don’t stack up when compared to their (easily identifiable) Grease counterparts; it’s quite another to say that the characters fail to work on their own terms. Johnny is charmless, stupid and aggressive, whilst Lorna Luft’s Paulette is just stupid. There are problems with each of the leads, too: as Stephanie, Pfeiffer never looks anything other than an 80s girl, resolutely modern while those around her do their best to stay in 60s mode (whether this is a fault of the director or something about Pfeiffer, it’s hard to tell); also, her angular dancing is not of the highest quality, and I can’t imagine her looking back on it fondly now. Meanwhile, Maxwell Caulfield looks perfect in the role of Michael: he’s handsome, tall, and manages to be an awkward English kid, balancing his slightly posh genius with his ‘mystery biker’ persona to good effect. Unfortunately, this being a musical, at a couple of points during the film he is called upon to sing; and although his voice is treated with every type of reverb known to man and pushed so far back in the mix that you can barely make out the lyrics, he is clearly an awful singer. Charades is unbearable, and the few lines where he has to harmonise with Pfeiffer (who has a perfectly adequate voice) are very painful. Still, Birch may not have been given the option or budget to get someone to do his singing parts, so we can’t blame her for that.
What can be blamed directly on Birch is the way the characters are sometimes heard singing their internal thoughts (ie. their lips don’t move) but then change to singing on-screen, chopping about confusingly. Also, when Michael plays piano at rehearsals, the piano appears to be a miraculous one that also plays drum and bass accompaniment (you briefly see a drum kit, but nobody plays it). The dance moves are immaculate throughout, and the director seems to have thought that as long as her area of knowledge is okay, the rest can fend for itself. However, the rest has neither the strength of personality nor songs to depend upon (where, for example, is the equivalent to the magnificent Hand Jive sequence?).
I’ve tried not to compare everything about Grease 2 to Grease, since it was a battle the ill-conceived sequel was never likely to win; and in portions the film is great fun, although probably not for reasons the filmmakers intended: my favourite moment occurs near the end where Stephanie, seeing Michael/the cool rider jumping off the hay bales, takes around forty seconds to conclude ‘He’s alive!!’ (where Michael has been all this time is quite another matter). With stuff like this going on there’s occasional, camp fun to be had out of Grease 2; just don’t expect to get the same things out of it as you got from the original.