Should I Watch..? 'Grease'
What's the big deal?
Grease is a romantic musical film released in 1978 and is based on the theatrical musical of the same name by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed by Randal Kleiser in his feature-length directorial debut, the film follows a group of friends in an American high school in the late fifties and the complicated love story between cocky greaser Danny and reserved exchange student Sandy. The film stars John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Eve Arden and Frankie Avalon. The film was a massive success critically and commercially, becoming the highest earning musical film ever when it was first released with global takings of $341 million on its initial release—subsequent re-releases have pushed its earnings close to $400 million. The film remains hugely popular more than 40 years after its release despite a less successful sequel—Grease 2, starring a young Michelle Pfeiffer—being released in 1982. The film's soundtrack was also a massive hit, with estimated record sales of 22 million which makes the album one of the best selling of all time.
What's it about?
In the hot hazy summer of 1958, local boy Danny Zuko meets and falls in love with an Australian girl on holiday, young Sandy Olsson. The pair enjoy a brief but passionate romance but when the end of summer comes, Sandy fears that she will never see Danny again. At the start of the new school year at Rydell High, Danny rejoins his greaser friends in the T-Birds - Kenickie, Doody, Putzie and Sonny - but is in for a shock when she sees Sandy enroll as a student after her family decide not to return to Australia.
Sandy makes friends with Frenchy who invites her to join her own girls-only greaser gang The Pink Ladies along with leader Rizzo, Jan and Marty. When it emerges that Sandy and Danny enjoyed a romance, Rizzo works hard to try and arrange a reunion for the two which doesn't go well after Danny maintains his bad-boy image in front of his T-Birds. While the Birds focus on trying to get their restored racer Greased Lightning back on the road, Sandy is faced with the task of winning Danny's attention back - possibly with the help of her new friends...
Release Date (UK)
14th September, 1978
PG (2008 re-rating)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Song ('Hopelessly Devoted To You')
What's to like?
Please allow me to just preface everything I'm about to say with the following statement - musicals are among my least favourite genre of film. Bear this in mind when I talk about Grease which slowly wore down my resistance to such a degree that I was still singing some of the songs a week after I first saw it. Despite not growing up in America or in the 1950s, the film creates a mesmerising illusion of the period that it's hard to fault with costumes, sets, hairstyles and characters all fitting perfectly into our preconceived image of the time. It's also hard to criticise the cast who give the film their all and it really pays off. Obviously, it's impossible to imagine the film without the startling performances by Travolta and Newton-John but the film has a dizzying enthusiasm and a sense of optimism that will win over the most curmudgeonly of viewers. Like myself.
Unlike many of the musicals we see today, the film benefits from having original songs instead of repurposed pop songs from jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! Of course, the film has remained in constant popularity for years now so the songs in the film feel like pop songs we've all sung on karaoke or on nights out - Summer Nights, You're The One That I Want, Greased Lightnin' and the title track performed by Frankie Valli are among some of the film's many musical numbers. Even if you've never seen the film before, the chances are good that you will know at least one of the songs and it's hard to stop yourself singing along to it. In fact, in these difficult times, it may be better to actually do so.
- The film's producer Allan Carr made a product placement deal with Pepsi but the movie features several instances of the Coca Cola logo. Faced with the prospect of costly reshoots after Pepsi learned of this, the Coke logos were simply blurred out although one Coca Cola logo does appear unaltered. Kleiser hoped that Pepsi wouldn't complain about it but it seems they never noticed.
- The song Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee contained a reference to the late actor Sal Mineo in the stage version. As Mineo was murdered in 1976, the filmmakers decided to change the lyric to reference Elvis Presley instead. Coincidentally, Presley himself died the same day that number was filmed.
- Kleiser was considering hiring Carrie Fisher to play Sandy so he contacted his old room-mate George Lucas and spent a day on the mixing stage of Star Wars overseeing one of her battle scenes. As he wasn't convinced that Fisher would be right for the role, he kept looking and eventually cast Newton-John.
- Kleiser was not a fan of the opening song as he felt it was too dark for the light and fun movie he was trying to make. As the song was written by the Bee Gees who were still riding high on the success of Saturday Night Fever, the song remained in place as Kleiser didn't feel he had any clout, being a first-time director. Kleiser also disliked You're The One That I Want, saying that the song 'sounded awful'.
What's not to like?
While the film's musical numbers and intricate dance sequences weren't a surprise to me, there were several things about Grease that did surprise and even shock. The subplot involving Rizzo felt at odds with the syrupy, candyfloss fluff of the main story and it gave the film an edge it didn't really need, in my opinion. The supporting cast is a curious blend of then-unknowns and faded Fifties TV stars that will probably fly over the heads of non-American viewers (the only other names I recognised among the supporting cast were singer Avalon and the future star of Renegade, Lorenzo Lamas). As is the case for most musicals, performances are over-the-top but still keeping with the film's undeniably cheesy tone. But in a way, it doesn't really matter too much. The film is all about giving audiences a chance to sing or dance their cares away and in that respect, it's a winner.
Not being hugely familiar with the Broadway original... ok, not at all familiar, I can't really comment how close this film adaption is to it but it certainly feels that subsequent revivals mirror the film very closely indeed. The film is an enjoyable romp through Fifties cliche with characters that aren't terribly deep or even that memorable if we're being honest. Other than Danny, Sandy and Rizzo, I can't recall many of the other characters or even specific events through the film besides the songs. But viewers today aren't interested in such things and if you're looking for some light escapism with catchy songs then you won't do much better than this. In many respects, it feels like a musical episode of Happy Days.
Should I watch it?
Grease is that rare example of a film that is critic proof because it is what it is. Fans will defend the film's flaws or ignore them altogether while those of you prejudiced against the film won't believe how good it is. They should - the film is a winning blend of nostalgia, great songs and atmosphere and if it won me over then it should win you over as well. Who cares that Newton-John was approaching her thirties for the role of a high school student when her performance in the film secures her place in pop culture history? Give it a chance and don't blame me when you're singing the songs to yourself later.
Great For: karaoke sessions, American audiences, cheering yourself up, Newton-John's career
Not So Great For: people who hate musicals, overly serious critics, feminists who might take exception to the ending
What else should I watch?
Grease was arguably the only teen-based musical until Kevin Bacon rocked up in the ultra-camp Footloose, which also featured a popular soundtrack which peppered the charts with hits. But if we're being honest, there's only really one film that comes to mind and funnily enough, it wasn't strictly speaking a musical. Saturday Night Fever was an intoxicating mix of disco, fashion, teenage rebellion, romance and Travolta's funky moves which, like this movie, continues to enthrall audiences decades later. Many films tried to jump on the bandwagon - Tommy, The Blues Brothers, Xanadu and most memorably Can't Stop The Music - but none have really replicated the success of Fever.
These days, we have seen a revival of the so-called 'jukebox musical'- a film that uses existing songs and simply writes its narrative around them. The most popular example is Mamma Mia! which is based around numerous ABBA songs (many of which were brutally murdered by Pierce Brosnan) but other recent examples include the romantic comedy Sunshine On Leith, the comedy drama Walking On Sunshine and the successful comedy Pitch Perfect and its two sequels. We still have film adaptations of stage and screen musicals such as the wildly popular A Star Is Born but the critical and commercial disaster that was Cats, it might be a while before we see them again.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox