Grease (United States, 1978)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Grease is a perfect way to become immersed in the recent past. Not only was it one of the top box office draws in 1978, but it capped off a decade of '50s frenzy (that began, ironically, with the off-Broadway opening of the play Grease in 1972). The stars were '70s icons, with John Travolta having come off his phenomenally successful outing in Saturday Night Fever and Olivia Newton-John having made her American acting debut after repeated stays atop world-wide pop charts. The songs are '50s style hits that have shown their enduring popularity. The soundtrack for Grease sold well in 1978 and is still going strong two decades later.

Many fans of movie musicals recall Grease with fondness. It certainly isn't a momentous film, and stands a considerable distance downslope from the pinnacle its genre, but it became a huge hit in an era when the musical was well into its death throes. Aside from the likes of Little Shop of Horrors (1986), the Disney animated films, and Evita (1996), there have been few memorable, big-budget motion picture musicals since Grease. The film was also popular enough to spawn a sequel, catchily titled Grease 2, but the less said about that sad endeavor, the better.

There are several reasons why Paramount Pictures has chosen to re-release Grease on its twentieth anniversary, all of which have something to do with money. '70s nostalgia is in full bloom (America has a thing about looking back 20 years), Travolta is hot again, and the CD is a cash cow. The biggest reason, however, is the unexpected windfall created last March when 20th Century Fox unveiled a spruced-up Star Wars. No one thinks Grease's 1998 box office total will come close to that of the first installment of George Lucas' space opera, but it should still make a tidy profit. The digitally-remastered soundtrack (which sounds great) and the enhanced color can only help.

Grease boasts what all successful motion picture musicals have: likable stars, a simple but not trivial plot, and a lot of enjoyable music. Familiarity with the soundtrack is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the film's popularity – several of the songs have achieved pop hit status. Who can't recognize "Grease," "Hopelessly Devoted to You," "You're the One that I Want," "Greased Lightning," and "Summer Nights"? These may not represent great music, but they're a lot of fun to listen to, as their abiding appeal proves. (Incidentally, three of those, "Grease," "Hopelessly Devoted," and "You're the One" were penned specifically for the movie; the others are leftovers from the stage show.)

The plot, such as it is, opens during the summer of 1958 when, to the tune of "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," Danny (Travolta) and Sandy (Newton-John) fall in love. After pledging their undying affection, they go their separate ways, returning to the reality that every teenager must face after Labor Day -- high school. The two are in for a surprise, however. Sandy has changed schools, and, unbeknownst to Danny or her, they are now both in Rydell High's Senior Class. Their eventual reunion, however, is anything but joyous. Although Danny is secretly delighted to see Sandy, he realizes that an overt display of joy will look bad in front of his tough friends, so he plays it cool. To Sandy, the reaction is like a slap in the face. The two then spend the rest of the movie dancing around each other, eventually getting together for the musical finale.

In addition to the songs, highlights of Grease include Travolta's daffy, limber performance as Danny, Newton-John's sexy-but-sweet Sandy, and a cast of adults trying vainly to pass themselves off as high-schoolers. Despite all of the silliness and singing, the exuberance of youth lies at the core of Grease, and, although everything is greatly exaggerated here, the film brings back memories of what it was like to hang out in the school yard, take a date to a drive-in movie, and attend a prom.

As Danny, the leader of the leather jacket-wearing T-Birds, Travolta is a riot. Alternately swaggering to prove his "coolness" and re-affirming his ability on the dance floor, the actor gives the kind of performance that's perfect for the role. His comic aptitude, often on display during the '70s in "Welcome Back Kotter," is used to good effect in a montage where Danny tries out at several sports in order to prove his worth to Sandy. Meanwhile, Newton-John is equally solid, even though, at the time, she was far better known for making records than movies. Sandy's transformation from shy wallflower to leather-clad babe is one of the film's best-remembered moments. (During that sequence, I especially like the panicked glance Sandy casts at her friends when she's not sure what to do with the cigarette.) Newton-John and Travolta develop a palpable chemistry, which is why they re-teamed five years later in the failed romantic comedy Two of a Kind, a movie that was unable to revive their then-flagging careers.

The supporting cast contains a number of familiar faces. The T-Birds are played by Jeff Conaway, Barry Pearl, Michael Tucci, and Kelly Ward, while their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies, are Stockard Channing (as the tough-talking Rizzo), Didi Conn, Jamie Donnelly, and Dinah Manoff. Frankie Avalon, the teen idol who spent a lot of time in the '60s on the beach with Annette Funicello, has a cameo as an angel. Eve Arden, of "Our Miss Brooks," is Principal McGee. Comedian Sid Ceasar plays Coach Calhoun, Alice Ghostley (Esmeralda on "Bewitched") is Mrs. Murdock, and the singing group Sha-Na-Na doubles as Johnny Casino & the Gamblers.

Grease works as a musical, a comedy, a light romance, and a gentle satire of teenage life during the '50s. In part because of its persistent high spirits, it's a delight to watch, even 20 years after it first appeared on the screen. There's no doubt that Grease has a devoted legion of fans, so it will be interesting to see how well the movie performs at the box office. After all, it is readily available on video tape, and, unlike last year's big re-release, there are no restored outtakes and enhanced special effects. The only things Grease has to rely upon are its reputation and its music. For me, at least, that's enough for a trip to the theater.

Grease (United States, 1978)