Twenty years after its initial theatrical release, Randal Kleiser's film
of the '50s-set stage musical Grease is just as popular, if not moreso,
than it was in 1978. How can such a cinematic trifle have such enduring
appeal? Quite simply, this tuneful look at one eventful school year at
Rydell High is one of those rare films where just about every last thing
about it falls magically into place.
Grease's remarkable staying power can first be attributed to the immense
appeal of its romantic leads, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. For my
money, Travolta's turn as bad boy Danny Zuko is the quintessential Travolta
performance--effortlessly supercool and confident with a sweet, goofy
innocence lying underneath a slick veneer of decadence. Although his '90s
comeback has included some of his best work as an actor, the recent
Travolta he has never been the astonishingly charismatic presence he is
here (the closest he has gotten is in 1995's Get Shorty), whether leading
his fellow T-Birds during the energetic "Greased Lightning" number or
hilariously attempting various sports to impress Newton-John's Sandy Olson.
Critics blasted Newton-John as being too bland, but they missed the
point--Sandy, fresh-off-the-boat from Australia, is _supposed_ to be bland,
which is not to say that she's boring. Newton-John _is_ incredibly
wholesome, but in a pure, radiant sense. She has a glowing, angelic
quality that is captivating, which is not to say that she isn't able to
pull off Sandy's eventual image makeover; spiritedly shimmying in black
leather, Newton-John more than proves to be up to the task.
A musical lives or dies by its soundtrack, and it is here that Grease
truly soars. The opening number "Summer Nights," in which Danny and Sandy
recall their summer romance, isn't the biggest karaoke tune of all time for
nothing; it's as deliriously buoyant as they come. That classic song and
the others that originate from Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's stage score,
including the aforementioned automotive celebration "Greased Lightning" and
bad girl Rizzo's (Stockard Channing) showcase lament "There Are Worse
Things I Could Do," are great, but the musical highlights are the three
tunes written expressly for the film. Newton-John is at her heartfelt best
crooning John Farrar's Oscar-nominated ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You,"
where Sandy soliloquizes on her love for Danny after he rebuffs her.
Tables are turned later on in the film, which sets the stage for Travolta's
best number, Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon's "Sandy," which includes the
immortal verse "Stranded at the drive-in/Branded a fool/What will they
say/Monday at school?" Perhaps the best-known song from the film aside
from "Summer Nights" is Travolta and Newton-John's hit duet "You're the One
That I Want," also written by Farrar. With its "Oooh-hoo-hoo, honey"
chorus, this toetapper is catchy almost to the point of annoyance. Almost.
But what really takes the film over the top--and makes it such an enduring
entertainment--is its joyful exuberance. From the knowingly cornball "Love
Is a Many-Splendored Thing" prologue to the "Born to Hand Jive" dance-off
to the"We Go Together" closing production number, there is never a dull
moment in Grease. The energy is so infectious that it carries the audience
through the more ridiculous scenes, most notably "Beauty School Dropout,"
where a guardian angel (Frankie Avalon) advises would-be beautician Frenchy
(Didi Conn) to return to high school. There are a few rough spots that
cannot be overcome; I was never a fan of the animated opening credit
sequence nor of the Barry Gibb-penned, Frankie Valli-sung title tune that
accompanies it; and while the too-old-for-high-school appearances of the
cast are generally forgivable, there is one huge exception--Annette
Charles, who plays sexpot dancer Cha Cha, looks downright elderly. But
those are very minor quibbles.
So why go to the theatre and see a movie that is so widely available on
home video? If you've only seen Grease on the small screen, you really
haven't experienced it at all. The big screen restores the film's wide
2.35:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio, correcting the damage wrought by the
video's horrible pan-and-scan job--no longer are half of Travolta and
Newton-John's faces missing for the last line of "Summer Nights." But most
impressive is the digitally remastered sound, which enhances sounds one
wouldn't be likely to catch before, such as background vocals on
"Hopelessly Devoted to You" and jet-propulsion noises when Danny and
Sandy's car takes its magical flight to happily ever after.
So it's no wonder why this incredibly fun slice of '50s nostalgia has
stood the test of time. Much like how the assembled Rydell graduates sing
"we'll always be together," Grease will always be around, and it will
remain "the word" for generations to come.