Flashback Fridays: Grease
Few films can evoke a sense of sunny nostalgia like Allan Carr's 1978 musical "Grease." Based on a stage musical of the same name, "Grease" ranks with films like George Lucas's "American Graffiti" as one of those special films that is part of the national consciousness while also symbolizing the fantastical desire for "the good old days." It might not be a wholly realistic depiction of high school at anytime, but it's a wonderful depiction of what a high school daydream can be like all the time. The story is like the kind of fantasy every romantic teenager has at one point. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John play Danny Zucko and Sandy Olsson. He's a leather-clad "greaser" with Elvis hair and she's a well-bred Aussie with radiant blonde hair and sharp wits. Their summer romance is thrown into a crisis when senior year begins and Zucko rejoins his gang of buds known as the T-Birds whose own brand of girls are the Pink Ladies, led by the tough as nails Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Can the good girl ever end up with the bad boy? Can true love to the beat of classic rock n' roll overcome those pesky teenage crises like peer pressure, low self-esteem, bothersome adults and competition from someone else who wants your object of desire?
"Grease" was released near the end of the 70s decade of personal, gritty cinema that defined the decade when directors like Martin Scorsese were coming into their own. The U.S. was still reeling from the Vietnam catastrophe and the resurgent conservatism of the Reagan 80s was just around the corner. "Grease" was like a splash of color, pushing aside darker, acclaimed musicals of the time like "Cabaret" and "Fiddler On The Roof." Its story of high school love in 1959 provided a candy-coded escapism that still pulls you in with its catchy musical numbers, fun dance moves and the charismatic presence of Travolta and Newton-John.
The very definition of what a musical is makes the songs supremely important. In "Grease" we get several that are catchy pop tunes that could hold their own on the charts apart from the movie. In fact "Grease" was the second top selling album of 1978 after the Bee Gees's soundtrack for another Travolta dance marathon, the much darker "Saturday Night Fever."
The songs have aged impressively well. "Summer Nights" is of course a modern classic with its tongue and cheek chorus lines while "You're The One That I Want" is a joyous thumping tune for any good girl wanting to bag a bad boy. Newton-John's vocals always soar. The latter song was also the basis for a great parody on "That 70s Show" where Mila Kunis almost outdoes Newton-John with her coolness.
Above all the film is a visual delight. Carr and cinematographer Bill Butler (who also shot "Jaws" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest") shoot radiant images which are always vibrant with the colors of the times. The sets have a rich authenticity and even during the musical numbers nothing feels false. If high school could be a musical "Grease" comes close to capturing what it might look like. The famous prom sequence is exhilarating and watching a younger Travolta dance is a reminder how much actual dancing is lacking in modern cinema.
Another reason "Grease" remains so popular could be because viewers find other things in it sorely lacking in modern culture. Youth culture, in particular since the 1990s, has grown incredibly jaded and technology-obsessed. The storyline and spirit of "Grease" might seem incredibly naive in the age of dating apps and "hook ups," but it tugs at viewers with its sense of pure, innocent romanticism. Watching "Grease" is always fun, but upon reflection it can be heartbreaking because you wonder if it would be a hit as a new release today. Do young people like each other like this anymore? In 2006 audiences rejected Julie Taymor's Beatles musical "Across The Universe" which tried to capture the 1960s with a vibrant mood and opted for the depressingly insane "Transformers."
"Grease" still resonates after almost four decades because even amid the age of Drake, it asks us to smile and dance. The story can be corny, but sometimes good things in life are just that.