Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Grease (1978)

          The ’50s-themed musical Grease never piqued my curiosity back in the day, so it wasn’t until 2011 that I finally watched the thing start to finish, having seen only tiny excerpts previously. And though the following remark is useless as film criticism, the only fair assessment I can offer is that I don’t get what the fuss is about. Grease was gigantic hit in 1978, and it remains so eternally popular that sing-along screenings are regularly held at world-class venues including the Hollywood Bowl. That’s not even mentioning the considerable staying power of the stage musical upon which the film is based, which is a perennial favorite in community theater and high school productions. So while I can easily identify some of the pop-culture factors that contributed to the movie’s success—the ’50s nostalgia boom that began with American Graffiti (1973), the ascendance of leading man John Travolta, who scored a career-making hit with Saturday Night Fever (1977) the year before Grease was released—I don’t see anything in the actual content of the movie that screams “all-time classic.”
          In fact, several gigantic flaws seem more glaringly obvious to me than the movie’s limited charms. The actors playing teenagers at all-American Rydell High are too old for their roles (leading lady Olivia Newton-John was almost 30 when she shot the picture), the storyline is suffocatingly sexist (she wins Travolta’s heart by proving she can dress like a slut!), and the celebrated soundtrack is schizophrenic, because the mock-’50s tunes from the original stage show are complemented by an anachronistic country-pop ballad (“Hopelessly Devoted to You”) and an even more anachronistic disco thumper (the Barry Gibb-penned title song). Furthermore, the jokes are juvenile, the story is a pastiche of ’50s clichés like soda-fountain food fights and hot-rod drag races, the choreography is uninspired and crudely filmed, and the music production is sloppy, with most of the tracks suffering from poor mixes in which vocals are amped up way too highly.
          On the plus side, the central opposites-attract romance between a good girl who’s secretly naughty and a greaser who’s secretly decent has universal appeal, Travolta’s dancing is terrific, and the whole thing is served up with such an overdose of sugar-coated exuberance that its eagerness to please is appealing in a desperate, puppy-dog sort of way. (The insidiously catchy climactic number, “You’re the One That I Want,” epitomizes the chirpy vibe.) But when all of these disparate elements unspool one after another, Grease feels like a sloppy rough draft. Tangents including the downbeat Rizzo subplot (Stockard Channing plays a loose woman who goes all the way with a bad boy, then faces the consequences) dissipate the clarity and impact of the main romantic storyline, and extended dance numbers like “Greased Lightning” and “Born to Hand Jive” lack the ironic wit of stronger tunes like “Beauty School Drop-Out” and “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee.” So while a few things in Grease work the way they should, close inspection reveals that they don’t, to quote one of the movie’s famous songs, “go together.”

Grease: FUNKY


John said...

Relieved that it's not just me.
I saw this recently for the first time and struggled to see what the fuss was all about. The direction is unenthusiastic and the script never rises above barely adequate. I have read that the stage musical is more culturally specific and gritty so maybe in trying to make a film with more universal appeal the whole exercise was drained of all energy, meaning and texture.
That still leaves us with an effort which only half struggles into some sort of life during the odd musical number and when Stockard Channing wanders in from a better film.
I've seen many a popular classic film which I knew going in wasn't "my kind of thing" but came out, if not converted, at least admiring the craftsmanship and understanding why other people might love it.
Not with Grease.

Unknown said...

I was not enthusiastic about "Grease" even before I saw it in '78. As a stage musical enthusiast, I was never impressed with the score, hated "Saturday Night Fever" and only went because I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something good. I found the film only mildly amusing in two or three spots and couldn't believe THAT MANY young people were willing to give a musical movie a chance. About 15 years later, I thought I would have another look, so I rented the VHS tape
but fell asleep about halfway through. To say that "Grease" is for special tastes is some kind of understatement, yet I can understand that there are a few people who recall it with pleasure.

Ron Miller said...

Well, here I am watching the Grease Sing Along Version on CBS in place of the Tony Awards (6/7/20) which were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is my first time seeing this film since the summer of 1978. I wasn't wild about it then...so we'll see. In the fall of 1973 I saw American Graffiti, which is still the best nostalgic recreation of the late 50s-early. 60s era. I loved it. The next spring I saw the stage version of Grease, which was merely okay. Then Grease came out. It does have some nice performances and is certainly a bit cleaned up from the stage musical. But it's no American Graffiti...compare the gym high school dance scenes, for instance. Graffiti's looks real, Grease's a comic book version on a studio set. So I give Grease a C+ for the music and seeing seasoned pros like Eve Arden, Joan Blondell, and Sid Caesar again. Travolta's good, but the best acting goes to Stockard Channing. And now I can wait 42 years to watch it again...when I'm 109.