Time has been kind to Grease. The darned thing about made me sick in 1978. Every time I turned on the radio, I heard Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta warbling some song from the monster-hit soundtrack. And when I finally saw the movie, I was suitably unimpressed.
A generation later, my then-7-year-old daughter fell for the 20th-anniversary edition, so I’ve had ample opportunity to take another look at it. And as musicals go, it’s not bad. Granted, I’m not always crazy about my young girl falling for a movie where a worldly girl complains about “missing her period,” but it reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon where Linus explains how he handles the novel The Brothers Karamazov: “Whenever I come to a part I don’t understand, I just ‘bleep’ right over it!”
The musical is a campy take on 1950’s high-school life. No school cliche is left unturned: the dumb, muscular jocks with greasy hair and cigarette boxes rolled up in their sleeves (particularly Danny, as played by Travolta); the clean-cut girls who go for them (Newton-John as Sandy, the foreign-exchange student); the football coach with his “Win one for the Gipper”-type speeches (Sid Caesar, rather wasted in many senses of the word); the uptight principal (Eve Arden); and the “American Bandstand”-like TV dance show, complete with nostalgia group Sha Na Na doing a big number.
Even on its own simplistic terms, the movie is a lot to swallow. For one thing, this is the oldest-looking bunch of high-school-age kids seen on film since The Bowery Boys. Secondly, what is it with Stockard Channing’s character Rizzo? Even when she thinks she’s pregnant and her boyfriend (Jeff Conaway) wants to do right by her, she blows him off with a first-class insult. We’re meant to see that Rizzo hurts people to keep from getting hurt herself, but after too many scenes of this sob-sister routine, you start thinking that she gets what she deserves.
But still, there’s much to enjoy. The TV show is only an excuse for an extended dance scene that’s quite lively and, in the wake of “musicals” that followed this one (Flashdance, Footloose), it’s a treat to see dancers actually dancing to express some joy, rather than waiting for the movie’s editor to hop up their routines. Travolta’s “Sandy” number, performed in front of a drive-in movie screen, has enough panache to elicit the pathos it obviously strives for. And Newton-John, whose part was obviously rewritten to accommodate her (then-) star status, does well enough with the songs that she’s actually passable. (Her nadir wouldn’t come until the disastrous musical Xanadu , which was enough to retire Gene Kelly from movies for good.)
It’s funny that what looked campy in 1978 makes one nostalgic for the movie musical only 20 years later. The warbling non-singers in, say, Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You make the Grease cast look like Astaire and Rogers by comparison.