ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 7: Grease)

Grease (1978)
Director: Randal Kaiser

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Or, as someone said on some appropriately famous occasion: Oh the humanity!

Well, so some people think. I’ll just have to set them straight.

First off, I like that they didn’t call it Grease! That was a stroke of genius right there. Somebody must have thought, If we’re gonna underplay one thing and one thing only, let’s have it be the title. Leave off the *&^# exclamation point why don’t ya?”

Second off: Here’s the plot of Grease in seven frames.

Sandy…

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Danny…

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Sandy and Danny…

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I was a jerk…will you go with me?

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…No, but, will you go with me?

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And if you do, can we live happily ever after?

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Yes…Yes we can!…In our flying car.

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That’s a classic structure folks. Shakespeare didn’t do better with Romeo and Juliet...or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There are, admittedly, several subplots, all done in equally primary colors–the drag race, the pregnancy that turns out to be a false alarm, the dropout who goes back to school, and so on and so forth. Not a spot of nuance anywhere, or a dropped stitch…or a missed opportunity to mock something or other that probably meant a lot to somebody once upon a time. Add in that the leads were 24-year-old John Travolta and 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, backed up by 28-year-old Jeff Conaway and 24-year-old Stockard Channing, all playing high school seniors, and the result should have been as slick and empty as the title (! or no !), and as sterile as the show’s Broadway-Does-Rock-N-Roll roots.

But it’s not. It’s way too goofy for any of that and just because everybody’s a little long in the tooth for their parts doesn’t mean they’re not perfect. Complaining that they’re a little too perfect–as in so perfect no mere Broadway casting call could have matched them in a thousand years–misses the point. If these characters had been played as anybody identifiably human the whole thing would would have gone poof, probably accompanied by a socially impolite noise that would have ripped every Dolby speaker in America apart along about the summer of ’78.

Instead it went over like gangbusters.

I confess I missed it. The phenomenon, I mean. I saw the movie in the theater that very summer. In high school, I used to take my mom to afternoon movies because she couldn’t drive and my dad didn’t like going to movies (especially the part where you had to pay to get in). She loved Grease, thought it was a hoot. I was an English major in training, possessed of superior taste, so I admitted I liked it okay (which I did), but I didn’t see what the big deal was.

Twenty years later, when the anniversary edition was released to theaters, I went to see it again, mostly out of affection for the memory of one of her last uncomplicated happy experiences and, even in an empty theater, with nobody to share the laughter, I found myself enjoying it immensely. And the main reason was that I finally got it. When I saw it in ’78, I didn’t know Edd “Kookie” Burns from Adam or Eve Arden from the original Eve. I had heard Sid Caesar’s name and Frankie Avalon’s, too, but I didn’t know either of them by sight. I didn’t get half the in-jokes or verbal puns. With all that I was missing, I’m not even sure I got the truly perfect Dinah Manoff’s Marty being asked her last name by Byrnes’ on-the-make dee-jay, and saying, “Maraschino…You know. Like in cherry?”

It turned out my lack of common culture knowledge–subsequently filled in by my later obsessions–had cost me a few dozen laughs. By 1998, time had made up the difference and a few dozen laughs (most of which still make me laugh again every time I watch it now, whether because anything is actually funny or because I feel a little guilty for not sharing the laughs with mom while she was still here or just because looking back on my ignorance is liable to make me shake my head a little in wonder, I don’t know) are the difference between not knowing what the big deal was and understanding it perfectly.

So while I recognize every possible objection my taste-filter should have to something that can so easily pass for “camp” (a concept I normally find contemptible), I still have to admit that, when it’s time to watch Grease, I always get a slightly giddy, light-headed feeling, not unlike the once-a-year ritual where I sink into happy oblivion and watch Abba videos for half-a-day. It’s a feeling of glad anticipation, and specifically the knowledge that my jaded soul will be skipping by the time the last two numbers play…And the wait’s always worth it…

…Oh, forgot. It’s a triple high when you add the closing theme. It was by Frankie Valli. Him I knew. Even in ’78.

Edd Byrnes or Frankie Avalon, he was not.

21 thoughts on “ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take 7: Grease)

  1. NDJ

    In 1978, I saw GREASE. Unfortunately, I forgot to take some acid, so I thought it was a “bigfoot” look at the ’50s that trivialized the era and the music. That the two stars were devoid of appeal to me (and were musical bantamweights) might have had something to do with it.

    Twenty years later (1998) and Berni loves the movie so she dragged me to the theater to pay good money to see it again!

    Unfortunately, Ms Newton-John’s appeal still escaped me.

    Fortunately, Mr Travolta had morphed into one of my faveravest actors!

    Unfortunately, I forgot to take some acid again . . .

    EDN

  2. DNJ

    While everyone knows MAMA MIA, the must-see Abba movie is PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. Amazing performances by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce and especially Terence Stamp, who received several Best Actor nominations and certainly deserved some kind of comeback-of-the-year award.

    After that, see MURIEL’S WEDDING. Of course, if you watch those three in one sitting, you could end up Abbafied for life …

    EDN

        • My goodness, the performance of “Waterloo” in Muriel’s Wedding is one of the high points of western civilization, thanks to joyous performances by Collette and Rachel Griffiths, and the only fight scene to leave the last hour of The Quiet Man in the shade. And I’m only slightly exaggerating.

          • SCOTT

            Let’s make sure that NDJ doesn’t skip on over to YouTube to see the “Waterloo” sequence. We have to make sure he sees the whole movie!

            NEAL

            PS: Johnny, you’re allowed to do as much acid as you want while watching any movie I ever recommend to you …

  3. Olivia Newton-John has been my soulmate from the first time I heard/saw her, she just hasn’t realized it yet.

    I liked Grease when I saw it in the theatre and it’s always been something of a guilty pleasure, despite the fact that I find its moral (“if you want a guy, change everything about yourself for him!”) utterly repulsive because, well, ONJ and John Travolta and catchy songs. Melody, as always, trumps (nearly) all.

    But my big hangup about the movie—and there are so many good candidates—is that Rizzo seems to be worried that she’s pregnant somewhere around the first or perhaps second month of the school year, and only discovers it was a false alarm on graduation day. Now, sure, this is a film with a flying car, so perhaps cinéma vérité it’s not, but even so, that math is just a bridge too far for me.

  4. Good post. I saw this movie when it first came out in the theaters. I’m guessing I was eight or nine years old. I loved it a lot – mainly because I had a fixation with the 50s at that time – and I must have seen it three times that summer.

    It’s been a long time since I watched it, and I don’t know if I could sit through it now, but I have a lot of fond memories of the time frame when I did see it, if that makes any sense.

    • That makes perfect sense. I think we’re all a little trepidatious about re-visiting movies or books we loved as a child. I’ve been lucky in that most of the things I loved then I still love…but it ain’t always so!

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