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.

THE THREAT….ELVIS CROSSOVER (Part 6)

…Or, “Yes, There Was a Reason They Drafted Him…However Coincidentally”

A few weeks turned out to be a few months, but I’m finally getting around to continuing the discussion of Elvis Presley’s unprecedented impact in the fifties. Parts 1 through 5 can be accessed in the “Concerning Elvis” category on the right (you’ll have to scroll down a bit–I’ve been busier than I thought). I indicated at the end of Part 5 that I would use this as a sort of philosophical summation, but I realized in the intervening gap that I had left out one important statistical component of my basic argument–and that it was perhaps the most important one!–so I’m inserting it here. It’s a little shorter than previous posts but I think it covers some necessary ground.

(NOTE: Up until November 10, 1958, Billboard’s Pop Chart was divided into multiple lists–for a time, as many as four per week. For historical purposes, any record that made it to the top of any of these charts is generally considered a #1 hit. Thus, there may be significantly more than fifty-two weeks’ worth of “#1″ records in any given year from 1954 to 1958.)

(SECOND NOTE: Within the definition of “rock and roll” below, I stretched to include the rather dubious likes of Charlie Gracie and Paul Anka–that is to say I even included artists who might well have enjoyed very similar levels of success with very similar sounding records had rock and roll never happened but who nonetheless can at least tangentially be called “rock and roll” acts. I also included those ballads, like Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All In The Game,” which at least get played on rock and roll oldies stations. I did, however, exclude “novelty” records, which tend to thrive in defiance of purely musical trends.)

So to begin, let’s consider the rise of Rock and Roll in three not entirely arbitrary stages:

Stage 1: July 19, 1954–April 21, 1956 (Elvis’ first official release on Sun to the week when his first major label release, “Heartbreak Hotel,” reached the top of the national pop charts)

Stage 2: April 21, 1956–March 24, 1958 (Elvis’ first national chart #1 to his induction in the Army)

Stage 3: March 24, 1958–April 25, 1960 (Army induction to his first post-Army release, “Stuck On You,” reaching the top of the national charts)

Now some statistics:

STAGE ONE (7/54–4/56):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 125
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 10 (8% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 0 (0% of Rock total)

STAGE TWO (4/56–3/58):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 152
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists only: 83 (55% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 56 (67% of Rock total)

STAGE THREE (3/58–4/60):

Total weeks at #1–all artists: 119
Total weeks at #1–Rock and Roll artists: 71 (60% of total)
Total weeks at #1–Elvis only: 4 (6% of Rock total)

Followed by some quick thoughts:

Studying these numbers, a few things become obvious.

Rock and roll took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture in the two years before Elvis went into the Army, (in the time frame which I’ve called “Stage 2”).

It took off into the stratosphere and moved to the very center of American culture (as opposed to becoming a real hot fad in the music business) because of–and only because of–Elvis Presley’s extraordinary success.

Elvis spent more than twice as many weeks at #1 in Stage 2 as all other rock and roll acts combined–even if “rock and roll” is stretched to its furthest possible definition. (Meaning, incidentally, the definition Elvis’ success gave it.)

As one method of considering rock and roll’s impact without Elvis: Pat Boone alone spent 18 weeks at #1 in Stage 2….all rock and roll acts not named Elvis Presley spent a total of 27 weeks at #1.

As another more straightforward method of consideration: Without Elvis, rock and roll only takes up about 28% of the total weeks at #1 in this all important and likely decisive stage.

That’s a long way from nothing. It’s a pretty big deal, moving from 10% to 28%. But, without Elvis, it’s not even close to being a Revolution. (Never mind that, absent Elvis, even the 28% would certainly be lower–he brought a lot of his competition with him.)

When we look at Stage 3, we find that Rock and Roll, broadly defined, really had become the dominant music (in the very era when rock historians have typically written it off), which it would remain until the rise of Hip Hop in the nineties. But that’s mostly because literally every record company in America had made a point of getting in on the act in the wake of Elvis’s extraordinary success, which was of a measure that no savvy businessman could afford to ignore.

Hence, what we find in Stage 3 is a string of #1 hits by Elvis surrogates: Bobby Darin, Conway Twitty, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka…even Johnny Preston and Mark Dinning (not to mention Nashville acts like the Everly Brothers and Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins who were still benefiting from the phenomena I discussed at length in Part 5, though that was about to end). These young men who might not have had recording contracts without Elvis re-directing the music business–and who certainly would have been singing a different kind of music–held the line until the main force returned (whence he immediately spent sixteen of the next thirty-seven weeks at #1 himself and spearheaded a “velvet revolution” in ballad singing that would flip the script so thoroughly that following developments–be it the Beatles or Dylan or Hendrix or Aretha or Johnny Rotten–became predictable in their broad outlines, however unforeseeable they were in their specifics. About that, more later, as we move into Elvis’ post-Army career.)

I wanted to present these numbers in simple, stark form, because I think they make the case more clearly than any amount of anecdotal evidence could, that, without Elvis Presley, the cultural narrative of the post-war era would be remarkably different. I’ll go into that more deeply in Part 7 before I move on to his return from the army.