Starring Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, Stockard Channing, and Jeff Conaway
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Classic movie musical is relentless fun.
Grease plays better now than when it was released in 1978. At that time, it was an upbeat movie musical about teenagers at a time when thoughtful, adult movies were the ones embraced by the critical establishment and serious filmgoers. Now, audiences can enjoy it as a familiar classic, rather than a guilty pleasure.
My old high school drama instructor hated Grease and summarized its story as, “Nice girl becomes slut.” While a bit of an oversimplification, that does describe how clean-cut teen Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) falls in with a gang of fast girls, the Pink Ladies, and alters her appearance to attract the leader of the T-Birds, Danny Zuko (John Travolta). Yet, forestalling my feminist misgivings about this transformation, the movie shows that Danny, too, changes himself to be worthy of Sandy. He earns a letter in track. Although he dramatically strips off his letterman’s sweater when post-makeover Sandy appears, the subsequent song, “You’re the One That I Want” makes clear that, while her transformation is one of style, it’s his transformation of substance that’s important for the future of the relationship.
Sandy and Danny’s on-again/off-again romance provides the focus of the movie, whereas the stage musical originally featured a larger breadth of stories about the other Pink Ladies and T-Birds. This focus gives the movie its emotional core.
As a whole, the movie improves upon the stage musical. The filmmakers kept the best musical numbers (including “Summer Nights” and “Greased Lightning”), trimmed the weaker ones, and added stronger original songs (including “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want). (A couple of the cut-out numbers from the stage musical can be heard briefly in the background and are included on the movie’s soundtrack.)
One change from the musical to the movie is the setting, from Chicago to Los Angeles. As a Chicagoan, I naturally feel some disappointment about this move. However, it allows for the fantastic car race set-piece in the (nearly empty) Los Angeles River. It’s a stunning sequence, inspired by the chariot race scene from the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. And sunny Los Angeles seems an appropriate setting for the cheerful optimism of the movie. I simply can’t imagine the events of Grease playing out against the background of a miserable, gray Chicago winter.
The casting of the movie leaves me hopelessly ambivalent. Olivia Newton-John shines with the musical performances but brings little depth to the buoyant Sandy and, at 29, fails to convey enough naivety for the character. John Travolta, on the other hand, is the key component to the film’s success. He has movie-star charisma to spare and is handsome in a slightly disreputable way. One of the younger members of the cast, Travolta was 23 and still conveyed enough youthful gaucheness to suggest that he could be a teenager. The best performance in the movie comes from Stockard Channing, as Betty Rizzo, the jaded, hard-as-nails leader of the Pink Ladies. Her rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” one of the weaker songs left over from the stage musical, creates a stunning moment late in the movie revealing the resilient vulnerability beneath Rizzo’s uncompromising façade. And, yet, I can’t help but recognize that, at 34, Channing could be the mother of her character.
The small roles and cameos by famous people from the 1950s, including Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Frankie Avalon, and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, may have lost their significance since the film’s release, as these personalities are less well-known among younger audiences.
One of the mysteries of Grease is the casting of Jamie Donnelly as Jan. In the stage musical, Jan’s role was bigger, and it was made clear that she was insecure and chubby. Donnelly is perfectly svelte, and yet the screenplay retains lines where Jan reveals her frustration with her diet and where her boyfriend reassures her that he likes larger girls.
As many times as I’ve seen Grease over the years, there are two other mysteries that I can’t solve. In an early scene in the malt shop, high school over-achiever Patty Simcox (Susan Buckner) is hanging all over Danny, asking him to call her, giving him the full-court press, yet the two characters would seem to have little to do with each other. I have to wonder if there had been some subplot about Patty having a crush on Danny that was left on the cutting room floor. The other question I have involves Rizzo’s pregnancy scare. When she falsely believes that she’s pregnant, she tells her boyfriend Kenickie (Jeff Conaway) that he is not the father. I still wonder whether she was lying to give Kenickie an out or whether she was involved with someone else. I like to think that the former scenario is the correct one, as it highlights the sense of Rizzo’s self-reliant bravado.
Grease, however, resists attempts to analyze it in depth. Its relentless, bubbly fun wins over all but the harshest and most cynical of critics, enjoining the audience to sing along and enjoy an uncomplicated good time. The real 1950s may not have been the halcyon days that Grease recreates, where every day was sunny and everything works out in the end, but, in creating this nostalgic world, Grease recalls a long tradition of movie musicals that harken back to an idealized notion of a simpler time, to the way we never were.