June 25, 2023

Grease (1978)
Grade: 37/100

Director: Randal Kleiser
Stars: John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing

What it's about. A period musical set in 1958 at a high school. Danny (John Travolta) and Kenicke (Jeff Conaway) leads the greaser gang, who aim to transform a junk car into a drag race champion. Rizzo (Stockard Channing) leads the Pink Girls, a popular clique.

The new girl is Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), who joins the Pink Girls and has a hot-and-cold relationship with Danny. Rizzo has sex with Kenicke and fears she has become pregnant.

How others will see it. Grease was an enormous box office success. For decades afterward, it was the top-grossing musical of all time in nominal dollars. Although it was mostly ignored by the Oscars, earning only a nomination for Best Song, in eventually entered (in 2020) the prestigious National Film Registry.

The overwhelming success of the film extended to the soundtrack, which provided four Top Ten hits ("Grease", "Summer Nights", "Hopelessly Devoted to You", and "You're The One That I Want."). Two of those titles reached number one on the Hot 100, and another peaked at number two.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has a respectable user rating of 7.2 out of 10. The user vote total of 288K is huge. The user reviews generally celebrate the movie as a fun feel-good winner, with Travolta and Newton-John ideally cast as the leads.

How I felt about it. In Grease, John Travolta does for retro pop what he had done for disco the year before in Saturday Night Fever, and what he would do for country music in Urban Cowboy in 1980. He was a good actor and, at best, an adequate singer. But he was a showy, charismatic dancer, and that is why those vehicles (as well as the much later Pulp Fiction, where he also wins a dance contest) are his best remembered.

Besides the presence of strutting Travolta, what can account for the success of Grease? It presents the 1950s as people would like to see it: as a simpler, non-political era; a fashion and musical statement. Each gender knew their role. Girls wore pink, guys wore black leather. Everybody had an attitude, but violence or open defiance to authority wasn't present. The gangs were harmless.

Whether the 1950s actually resembled this fantasy isn't the point. Communist witch hunts, polio, the hydrogen bomb, the Korean War, racial segregation, and Mitch Miller are forgotten; James Dean and Elvis Presley are remembered.

In the world of "Grease", men and women into their thirties play high school students. Nobody studies or attends classes. The staff consists of a principal (Eve Arden), a coach (Sid Caesar, who hasn't lost his comic timing) and a secretary. All the students save for Rizzo and Marty (Dinah Manoff) seem incredibly stupid.

"Grease" is a good song, thanks to writer Barry Gibb and singer Frankie Valli. But the remainder of the soundtrack is bad to mediocre. Olivia Newton-John is pretty and a competent actress, but as a singer her reputation is for whispering pop fluff. Sha Na Na is better at promoting a style than providing it with content. Frankie Avalon is as smooth a crooner as he was in the 1950s, but also just as flat.

Admittedly, some of the songs have an edge. The girls will cream for "Greased Lightning", while "Beauty School Dropout" is a series of stinging insults to Frenchie (Didi Conn). The dancing is dirty, and the script is littered with sexual innuendos. But the thin layer of cynicism that surrounds this colorful costume musical doesn't improve it, perhaps because it makes the characters seem even more like caricatures.

Grease remains a popular musical, and its feel-good fun and active choreography make it watchable. But if you want to see a light hearted parody of the 1950s, why not watch a much better film from its own era, such as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Hairspray (1988) (the original and not the John Travolta remake) is also superior, albeit set a few years later.