WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Too-cool-for-school Danny Zuko discovers that his Australian summer fling, goody two-shoes Sandy Olsson, is a fellow senior at Rydell High, putting his reputation in danger. As Danny tries to reconcile his greaser image with his tender feelings for Sandy, she wonders what she has to do to find the Danny of the summertime.
I saw a fascinating television programme once which posited the theory that, since it had been popularised, adapted, parodied, put on tea-towels and suffered other such indignities, it was almost impossible to look at Mona Lisa (the painting, not the Bob Hoskins film) in an objective sense. Not to push the comparison too far, but much the same is true of Grease, which has been subject to so many revivals (like The Sound of Music, it formed the basis for a TV talent show in Britain), and been used for so many events – culminating in the ultimate reduction of the 6-minute ‘Mega Mix’ – that considering the film as a single, whole entity is actually quite difficult to do.
Grease introduces us to Danny and Sandy (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John), youngsters (!) in the late 50s who share a summer of love on the beach but who think they will never see each other again, since she’s due to return to Australia with her parents. Her surprise and pleasure at seeing Danny when she enrols at Rydell High is tempered by his behaviour towards her; she is a prim and proper miss, whilst Danny is the leader of the ‘T-Birds’, all leather, attitude and greased-up quiffs. Sandy’s initial attempts to join in with the cool girls at school, the Pink Ladies, go disastrously wrong when Rizzo (Stockard Channing) and friends Frenchy and Marty (Didi Conn and Dinah Minoff) make fun of her, but Danny tries to edge closer to her without harming his reputation for coolness, a quandary which literally has him stumbling over hurdles.
Meanwhile, Danny’s ‘lieutenant’ Kenickie (Jeff Conaway) is busy fixing up an old banger which he plans to race at Thunder Road, and in which he has unprotected sex with Rizzo (or Betty, as she likes to be known), resulting in a possible pregnancy. Tensions are boiling when TV show National Bandstand visits Rydell, and the T-Birds’ feud with the Scorpions (represented by scarred gang leader Dennis Stewart) can only be resolved – Danny thrust into the driver’s seat, Sandy looking on – by a winner-takes-all drag race. And Sandy, of course, has one more trick up her sleeve to get Danny interested.
I’ll address some of the negatives first. Randal Kleiser’s direction is workmanlike, the animation of the opening titles is amateurish (Stockard Channing’s ‘portrait’ is horrendous) and while the period styling is competent the film does not feel immersed in it, mostly due to the very seventies feel of the new songs written specifically for the movie: Grease, Hopelessly Devoted to You, Sandy and You’re The One That I Want. Most of the actors are clearly too long in the tooth for their roles (Stockard Channing was 33) and most importantly the film lacks any of the grit of the original musical, its violence, aggression and bawdiness replaced by broad comedy from the junior T-Birds and school stalwarts Coach Calhoun, Principal McGee and Blanche (Sid Caesar, Eve Arden and Dody Goodman respectively). Seen as coldly as possible, Grease reveals itself to be little more than light comedy fooling around a couple of flimsy, superannuated boy-girl stories that help fill out the time between set-pieces.
But what set pieces they are. Summer Nights, Born to Hand Jive (my personal favourite), Greased Lightning and You’re The One That I Want practically explode out of the screen in a riot of energy and colour, with Patricia Birch choreographing the cast superbly and all the leads proving to have decent voices. Travolta and Newton-John make a sweet couple, Travolta giving Danny a goofy charm which is some compensation for the loss of his harder edge, whilst Channing has a brilliant twinkle in her eye and there’s a lovely cameo from Frankie Avalon as he lectures Frenchy in Beauty School Dropout. On top of this, Newton-John gets one of the most notorious costumes in cinema as she vamps up for the finale, her skin-tight trousers matched by the killer line ‘Tell me about it – stud!’ The Thunder Road drag race is also good fun, even if Stewart’s Boadicea-type wheels are silly, and all of Grease’s big moments come at well-spaced intervals, meaning that it’s never too long before a favourite segment comes along.
Essentially, Grease floats because of the strength of its songs, and although the original tunes written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey do not exactly dovetail with Louis St. Louis and others’ new ones, they form an infectious and lively whole and are always well performed: little wonder that the singles and soundtrack album sold in their millions, and the songs are still ubiquitous at discos and parties.
As for the film, well, it’s no masterpiece, and neither is it particularly progressive if you look carefully at its sexual politics (how does Sandy make herself happy? By slutting up (pardon the phrase) and smoking); but who has ever watched Grease for its social commentary? No, at its best Grease is bright, tuneful, energetic and sunny, and even though these moments only last for short bursts at a time, they are classics nonetheless that can be and undoubtedly are watched in isolation, skipping over most of the rest of the film. While this is testament to the strength of those sections, the flimsiness of what remains half-predicts the failure of Patricia Birch’s catastrophic Grease 2.