You know the word, and it ain’t the bird. Remembering the movie that made musicals cool again
Musicals. Once they were the biggest thing in Hollywood, the ultimate example of how popular cinema could delight and transport. That blissful unreality of spontaneous song-and-dance, so far removed from quotidian life, combining to deliver as pure a distillation of sonic and visual vivacity imaginable. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the musical was a force all of its own, from The Wizard of Oz to The Sound of Music, from Singin’ in the Rain to West Side Story, they attracted millions, made millions, won tons of awards and, for the most part, appealed to all ages. Yet even though the genre still has its occasional moment in the spotlight, be it Frozen or The Greatest Showman, it is no longer the consistently formidable commercial juggernaut it once was. Something happened around the end of the 60s, when cinema became noticeably less innocent, more gritty and closer in sync with the public mood, a post-Summer of Love hangover seemingly at odds with the joie de vivre of the musical film. In the early 70s, there were far fewer smash hits to speak of — Scrooge, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret… not much else. Tellingly, we had the likes of 1974’s That’s Entertainment!, wherein MGM celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering up a compilation of highlights from its greatest successes. It was almost like the end of an era.
However, the real end of the era came a few years later. Directed by Randal Kleiser and choreographed by Patricia Birch, 1978’s magnificent Grease, based on Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s smash stage musical of 1971, marked the last hurrah for the musical, an enormous hit (it was the third most successful film ever for a while, behind Jaws and the first Star Wars) that won over an entire generation of cinemagoers, and notably too, future generations of TV and home video viewers. I was part of the latter. I must have watched it a million times in my childhood; our recorded-off-the-telly version was surely made of some kind of indestructible tape given how many times it was watched. Growing up in a house wall-to-wall with musicals, Grease was on ALL the time. I loved it. Everybody in our house loved it. It became such a part of our dialogue that, one time coming back from a day out, where we ended up being stuck at a train station with no sign of a departure for ages, we actually reworded the opening lines of ‘Sandy’ so that we were singing ‘stranded at the station’ as opposed to ‘drive-in’! Our house wouldn’t have been the only example. Even people who don’t really dig or even watch musicals still have time for Grease. In terms of popular impact, it transcends its genre like very few other films — it was beloved enough to be a hit over and over, be it through re-releases or stage revivals. Grease may have originated on the stage, but I’d wager the only reason it’s still on the stage in one form or another these days is because of the film.
It wastes no time by opening with the bittersweet end of a summer romance at the beach between Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny Zuko (John Travolta). She has to go back home to Australia with her family, he has to go back to school. It’s been a glorious, idyllic and innocent romance (emphasised by the deliberately corny dialogue and ‘Love is a Many-Splendored Thing’ on the soundtrack), and while Danny would clearly prefer things to get a bit hotter and heavier, Sandy insists they don’t spoil it with all that sex business. How could all of this be over, she goes on to lament. But of course, as we all know, it’s just the beginning.
Cue Grease‘s first major weapon in its all-out campaign to reduce the viewer to delirious nostalgia freaks — that title sequence, and that title song. Written specifically for the film by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb and sung by Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons, it’s a glorious thing indeed, simultaneously sounding old given Valli’s presence but also totally contemporary thanks to that irresistible disco beat. A ‘new-old favourite’ as the film itself admits. The animated titles (by John David Wilson) are a visual jukebox of 50s iconography, a total greatest hits of the time, a cherry-picked, thrilling throwback, where hair gel was essential, Elvis was king, hula hoops were the toy to own, kids wanted to be Davy Crockett, poets were socialising in coffee houses, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were the objects of rebellion and desire and it seemed everyone was sucking on a Pepsi just before they took off on their motorcycles. It sets the tone for Grease‘s intoxicating trip to the past beautifully.
Danny: That’s cool baby, you know how it is, rockin’ and rollin’ and what not.
Danny: That’s my name, don’t wear it out.
Sandy: What’s the matter with you?
Danny: What’s the matter with me, baby, what’s the matter with you?
Sandy: What happened to the Danny Zuko I met at the beach?
Danny: Well I do not know. Maybe there’s two of us. Why don’t you take out a missing person’s ad? Or try the yellow pages, I don’t know.
Sandy: You’re a fake and a phony and I wish I never laid eyes on you!
Set in and around the fictional school of Rydell High in 1958, in a world where all the parents are magically absent and only ever referred to, where the only adults are the put-upon teachers, diner waitresses and the occasional sleazoid sex-pest TV presenter. The dialogue, as befits the genre, is as rhythmic as the songs, delivered by a gleeful cast buzzing with enthusiasm and sharing tremendous chemistry. It’s easy to take for granted just how effortless the fun factor in Grease is, an infectious (if occasionally cruel) spree of hi-jinks, goofing and mildly risque, but essentially PG-rated (well, for its time) sex talk.
The T-Birds are the coolest kids in school — Danny is their leader, Jeff Conaway’s cool-as-ice car freak Kenickie his deputy and Doody (Barry Pearl), Sonny (Michael Tucci) and Putzie (Kelly Ward) the more goofy, hapless buddies. They’re arguably only cool in relative terms because everyone else in school is so hopelessly square — the subjects of their disdain are unfortunate types like the hapless Eugene (stereotype geek-with-glasses to the power of ten), the preppy Patty or dull jock Tom. I’ve got to admit, the T-Birds are actually minor-league jerks most of the time, but not so much that they cross the line, although Putzie looking up girls’ skirts deserved a kick in the face, no doubt about it, while Danny’s (admittedly hilarious) bad sportsmanship is jaw-droppingly uncool. Ultimately, these are cartoon rebels. This isn’t West Side Story and they aren’t The Outsiders — no one is in danger at any point. Although Kenickie brandishes a flick-knife in one shot, there’s no way it’s ever going to be used. Even the climactic car race between Danny and rival gang leader ‘Craterface’ is reassuringly safe from any real edge.
Then there’s the Pink Ladies, who ‘rule the school’, led by the formidable Rizzo (Stockard Channing) and her three cohorts Frenchy (Didi Conn), Jan (Jamie Donnelly) and Marty (Dinah Manoff). Maybe there’s a place in their world for a new recruit like Sandy, although Rizzo doesn’t think so, dismissing her as ‘too pure to be pink’. Woah, wait — Sandy? Didn’t she go back to Australia? Well, a change of plan means she’s just enrolled at Rydell, but she doesn’t know Danny’s a fellow student. This is where we get the glorious ‘Summer Nights’, when the blissfully ignorant former lovers tell their enraptured followers (everybody it seems, except Rizzo) of their wonderful romance, although Danny clearly seems to be embellishing the facts to make it a bit saucier. When the Pink Ladies realise the ‘gentleman’ in the song is actually Danny, Rizzo engineers a surprise reunion where he, desperate to save face in the eyes of his ‘cool’ buddies, acts patronisingly dismissive towards Sandy — god, this bit always hurt so much to watch. How could he be so cruel? Yet the harshness of teenage cliques and the value of cool sadly rings true here. Sandy, heartbroken, tries to fit in with the Pink Ladies but that proves just as humiliating when she’s subjected to the vices of smoking, drinking and ear-piercing, poor thing. I’m definitely in the Sandy camp throughout Grease — she’s a total sweetheart and Danny by contrast has got a hell of a lot to learn. Whether he actually does learn is one of the film’s more curious elements. In fact, it seems like Sandy’s the one who ultimately has to change herself, but more on that in just a sec.
The first half of Grease is where its narrative, mixed with the songs, is at its strongest. Somewhere after ‘Greased Lightning’, the thinness of the story becomes more apparent, which doesn’t help by spreading its focus to supporting characters who, while in themselves are intriguing (abetted by amazing songs like ‘Beauty School Drop Out’ and ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do’, devoted to Frenchy and Rizzo respectively), does reduce Sandy and Danny’s relationship to a scattershot, whiplash-inducing on-off-on experience. It doesn’t help throughout that Danny’s a prat, really. Thanks to Travolta’s irresistible charisma, he more than gets away with some unthinkingly selfish behaviour. In the brilliant dance-off sequence, I hated that he ignores Sandy after she’s dragged off the dance floor by an inebriated Sonny and he then just carries on with the obnoxious Cha-Cha. Worse comes later. Firstly, he tries to force himself on Sandy at the drive-in cinema, but after she runs away in fury, he’s the one who sings a song of heartbreak. That ‘you hurt me real bad’ line in ‘Sandy’ showcases a staggering lack of self-awareness, unless he’s specifically talking about the fact that Sandy did indeed slam a car door against his cock.
Frenchy: Men are rats, listen to me, they’re fleas on rats, worse than that, they’re amoebas on fleas on rats. I mean, they’re too low for even the dogs to bite. The only man a girl can depend on is her daddy.
The ending, where Sandy sheds her good-girl image and sexes herself up spectacularly, never rang true to me, and if anything, is a bit of an insult to her character. The message seems to be that it’s probably better not to be yourself and instead try to fit in with the crowd in order to keep things going. Throughout the film she just keeps coming back to this guy, and to be honest, she could do better. Interestingly, Grease was originally devised as an inverse of the kind of 50s movies where the good girl won over the bad boy and made him nice, changing it so that it was the girl who was the one who ended up changing. I think if there was an equivalent film today, it would subvert that trope back to how it was originally in the 50s.
Yet for all its occasionally frustrating narrative turns, Grease never fails to captivate. The main reasons are those songs. They’re amazing, no doubt about it; wonderfully composed, wonderfully sung and beautifully orchestrated. Some of them could have been legit singles in the 50s with their heavenly doo-wop sound (‘Beauty School Drop Out’, sung by a genuine 50s superstar, Frankie Avalon), while some are neatly contemporary enough to sound modern, but not so much that they don’t fit in the film’s fabric. They’re also loaded with references that have now become, in themselves, more famous than the things they’re referencing. Not many people my age knew who Sandra Dee or Annette (Funicello) were back then, but it didn’t matter. ‘Greased Lightning’, which accompanies the T-Birds plan to soup-up Kenickie’s bashed-up banger, is a delight. ‘Born to Hand Jive’ is electric. ‘There are Worse Things I Could Do’, Rizzo’s big song, is absolutely heartbreaking. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ ― the second of Sandy and Danny’s two duets, but the first where they’re actually face-to-face ― is a joyous, effervescent celebration of love, playfully delivered.
Some of those songs were from the original stage musical, some were new additions. It was ultimately a brand new song that ended up being the one nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and it was the last one to be included. Feeling the movie needed a big ballad, the producers got Newton-John back on set and we got the tune that remains my favourite in the entire film. Sandy’s unrequited love song ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ is a total heartbreaker, with its weeping steel pedal guitar, dreamy slow-dance beat and blockbuster chorus, wonderfully sung by Newton-John. I was totally knocked out by it as a child. It always reduces me to a soppy wreck.
Like the songs, the cast can’t be beat. It’s a perfect ensemble. Of course, one main reason for Grease‘s success was its biggest name. Travolta, an actor whose career ended up having so many ups and downs, was never more up than in 1978, an incandescent ray of light who had so spectacularly strutted onto the screen in Saturday Night Fever the year before, leaving audiences spellbound. Grease consolidated that stardom. He just owns the screen. Newton-John, who’d already amassed an impressive run of hit singles and huge popularity with her wholesome, girl-next-door personality but was not yet known for her acting skills is just utterly adorable and totally winning as Sandy. Channing adds caustic spirit, Conaway old-school greaser charm, and the remaining T-Birds and Pink Ladies are all wonderfully complementary. You also have veteran stars like Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Joan Blondell and Dody Goodman to add splendid, vintage credibility to the 50s mood as the adults.
Frenchy: I wish I had a guardian angel to tell me what to do. You know, like Debbie Reynolds had in “Tammy.” What do you think?
Vi: If you find him, give him my phone number.
Speaking of 50s mood, the nostalgia for that particular decade really took off in the 70s. Happy Days was one of the biggest television hits of its time, and even though they had formed in the 60s, The Beach Boys realised that true commercial longevity meant shedding the progressive maturity of their post-Pet Sounds era and reliving their teenage days at the beach, with their shrewdly named Endless Summer compilation turning out to be one of their biggest successes. The public wanted an endless summer too ― a time before JFK and MLK’s assassinations, before Vietnam, before Nixon ― and Grease served up a wonderful, harmless world of customised cars, fast-food diners, drive-in theatres, funfairs, the works. Even though it touches upon very serious subject matter such as teenage pregnancy, gang rivalry and quitting school, the final scenes see pretty much everyone getting a happy ending. The gang’s all together, and despite Danny and Sandy literally driving off into the skies and leaving everyone behind, somewhat negating the closing refrain’s sentiment of ‘we’ll always be together’, it’s about as cute and happy a resolution as one could imagine.
So yes, Grease is a film that is deeply nostalgic, but it has since become a film that, over forty years on, a major source of nostalgia in itself for many, many people, myself included. Watching it again recently, I felt a mix of emotions ― joy and excitement at the unparalleled rush of pleasure it delivers, and yet impossible sadness too. It reminds me of a time before adulthood, of looking forward to teenage kicks and of first loves and good times ― yeah, there’d be problems and maybe heartache, but they’d be overcome and everyone would be happy. Grease brings out in the youth in me, turns me into a child once more, but also makes me realise all too much the passing of time, and how you can never go home again, that sort of thing.
Also, this latest viewing really brought home the truth that while these days film and music are equal passions of mine, to begin with it was strictly all about film. Music felt so intensely powerful back then that it was almost a little scary ― it hit me in such a direct, nakedly emotional way that made it even more visceral than cinema ― at least with film there was a screen to act as a borderline. The way the more spectral presence of music invisibly found its way into my very being, and living in a house with a sister who had the voice of an angel ― in direct contrast to my non-ability ― meant that I was often too embarrassed about singing or even embracing music in a house that was full of the stuff. A film like Grease was about the closest I got to tiptoeing around the matter, and it all felt so quietly exciting. Of all the musicals that were on constant rotation in our house, it was by far and away my favourite. It was so unlike anything else I was watching, which was mostly James Bond or cartoons. Here was an alternative world of love, romance, dancing and songs. And it was something that felt, more than anything I’d ever seen, kinda sexy, at a time when I was probably still embarrassed or bemused by any word that had the word ‘sex’ in it.
The most obvious instance of this was the scene with Sandy and the Pink Ladies in Frenchy’s house, which was just fantastic and oh-so beguiling, and not in a leering, pervy Animal House or Porky’s sense. It really felt being like a fly on the wall at a girls’ sleepover. It’s all performed very naturally and cute and silly and very funny, and yet also fascinating to watch as a child to whom the world of ear piercing, smoking, drinking and making out (as Rizzo does when she ditches the girls for a bit of back-seat loving with Kenickie) was totally alien ― I was very much relating to Sandy as she pukes up in the bathroom, and then when she’s made fun of as Rizzo delivers one of the great put-down songs in ‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’. And then ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ comes along, introducing the subject of being seriously lovesick and the sting of unrequited longing. It was a rush of experience as a child.
Grease might have been the first musical to make a major impression on me, but it was arguably the last of its kind to make a similar impact on a larger, cultural level. Nothing immediately afterwards had any kind of similar success. Some musicals came, some went, some hid undercover by way of MTV and came out as Purple Rain or Streets of Fire. Then of course, there was Grease 2, 1982’s critical and commercial flop of a sequel that seemed forever destined to be The One We Don’t Talk About but has, delightfully, grown in stature and appreciation. For the record, I love it. All that was afterwards though. Back in 1978, Grease was truly the word, from a time when the musical, just before it temporarily extinguished, briefly burned brighter than ever.