Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Hollywood musical was mostly dead by the late 1970s, with only adaptations of successful stage
shows trying to make a dent in the void. Grease was a stage hit inspired by a 50's nostalgia
craze that soon peaked in American Grafitti, and a subseqent wave of rip-offs. A mega-production from
Mister Disco, Allan Carr,
whatever qualities the play had, have been coarsened in the adaptation. The teaming of John Travolta
and Olivia Newton-John proved a boxoffice home run, and the show's commercial savvy can not be
faulted, but as a movie, it's no gem. It's biggest effect was to prove that tasteless raunch and
tacky artlessness were qualities perfectly suitable for the mass audience.
After a chaste summer romance with Danny Zuko (John Travolta), Australian teen
Sandy Olsen (Olivia Newton-John) shows up at Rydell High, to find Danny's personality changed
around his hood friends. Their romance grows in fits, while the rest of the gang go in for
crude jokes and cynical attitudes about sex and relationships. Although tough girl Betty Rizzo
(Stockard Channing) maintains a 'no prisoners' outlook on life, even she shows a tender spot.
Basically, Grease isn't a parody or a spoof on the 50's, it's a comedy on 50's kitch culture
at least 3 steps removed from its subject. Its jokes have lost their point of reference, imposing
70s vulgarity onto the past, and piling in cultural schtick from as far back as 1930s rah-rah
campus comedies. The glitzy retro look of the picture refers to nothing except the 1978 Disco scene,
and its grab bag of cultural touchstones is so off-base as to pull in things as irrelevant to its
era as Alice's Restaurant, a sign seen in the opening credits. As a result, Grease
stands or falls on the merits of its jokes, characters, and music.
For humor, we have unrelieved crudity that's supposed to be some kind of retro hipness. The script is
so hyped with trashy sex talk, that the film is a good example of a big studio's ability to snooker
the ratings board. There's nothing clever about the innuendo, which has loveable hero Travolta tell
Stockard Channing, "Bite my weenie." Sure, it's all in fun, but there's a distinct absence of wit.
The smutty attitude is consistent throughout. The virginal exchange student finally wins her
man by transforming herself into a slut godesses - in a leather getup
that looks more like SM than 50's retro. The hot rod culture of
the late 50s is distorted into a fashion show of leather and pompadours, with moronic characters who
are genetic hybrids between the Dead End Kids and animated Disney animals. The point is not that
Grease doesn't follow reality - it doesn't follow anything except its own trashy tastes.
50's kids who attended 'nice' high schools certainly varied in backgrounds and manners,
but the all-pervasive smut talk and randy rowdiness seen here was mostly sublimated. Grease is
almost as perversely skewed as Porky's. Again, if the exaggeration had some point besides
cheap raunch, I'd buy it. I'd like to watch Grease with Robert Crumb, to see what his
reaction to it would be.
Savant realizes that his arguments about Grease not having anything to do with the real fifties
is going to strike a lot of readers as irrelevant. If the movie had much else to offer, things
would be different.
The teen casting should have been prosecuted as actor abuse. All the cartoonish teen characters are
very ably played by an arresting group of faces - whose earnestness only points up the cheap
coarseness. We like all the actors - the Jackie Joseph soundalike Didi Conn is downright loveable.
Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta make a fine couple; Travolta does wonders with his part, making
his leers and snide mannerisms charming as only he can do.
The adults are all icons from older comedy styles, mostly 50's sitcoms. Eve Arden and Sid Caesar's
schtick is lost amid all the raunch, good comedians playing patsies to bad comedy. More apt is the
casting of Edd 'Kookie' Byrnes as an ersatz Dick Clark - Byrnes has the exact right tawdriness to
But the biggest victim is Stockard Channing, who brings moments of real pain and depth to 'bad girl'
Betty Rizzo, and is by far the best thing in the picture. Her segues from emotional sincerity to
her tough persona are so good they belong in a different picture. There are only a couple of
seconds of humanity in the movie, like a moment of honest contact between Betty and Sandy,
but even that is thrown away. It's embarassing the way the Betty Rizzo character is
moving towards tragedy, and then after a flip, 'the rabbit didn't die' line, is back dancing like an idiot
alongside everyone else. But, then again, Bad Betty is white, and the movie reserves its nastiest
jeers for the real slut who emerges at the big dance, Cha Cha. She turns out to be a rabid Latin
stereotype who destroys any good memories from West Side Story.
Grease has a fun set of songs that combine original stage tunes with newer pop numbers. But the
rest of the production is truly feeble, starting with direction that defeats any attempt to make
something of the musical numbers. Although much of the choreography is rather good, non-talent Randal
Kleiser shoots most all of it in the most flat and ugly way imaginable. The two stars emerge unscathed
most of the time, with the best number being the simple treatment of Olivia's handsomely warbled
Hopelessly Devoted to You, but even they cannot survive the unimaginative camera blocking in
the gym. The camera choreography is at its best in the Beauty School Dropout and
Greased Lightning numbers, yet it's still pretty tacky there too.
The finale, with its very catchy pop song You're the One that I Want, is perhaps
the worst designed, worst directed and worst photographed 'big musical' number ever done. In broad
the dancers do their stuff between the distracting, dull machinery of cheaply rented modern carnival
rides, jumping and singing their hearts out in shots that make their dancing look insignificant and
stupid. Compositions are arbitrary or far too loose, and the considerable energy of the song is
cinematically squandered. The big moments with Olivia and John just look cheap. Savant watches
Grease with a combination of curiosity and hostility.
Paramount's DVD of Grease has been awaited for a long time ... when it was expected in 1999,
Savant wrote an article about some
optical hijinks that take place in its malt
shoppe scenes. The transfer is fine on this widescreen version (there's a pan'n scan version available
for the less enlightened). The sound has been remixed for more dynamism, which on Savant's system
means that dialogue scenes are too low and the music is too loud. On my specific system, for some
reason, the key vocal in the big songs seemed far too low in relation to the background vocals and
musical effects, and every once in awhile a lyric line practically dropped out, which I hope will
not be the same for everyone else. Back to the 'audio' menu on my monitor ....
For extras there's an
okay trailer, and a frankly terrible, unattributed docu that's listed as 'retrospective interviews.'
It's worse than a new featurette, with the actors saying meaningless fluff about the production and
importance, mostly assuring us that it was really cool to shoot it. A bit of behind-the scenes footage
sneaks in, but it's mostly just embarassing drek, with the actors seemingly pressured to come up with
about Grease being a great American musical. Only Newton-John seems sincere, with honest talk
about her fitful movie career - her only previous picture, she says, was an English flop from six
years before - the ill-fated sci-fi musical Toomorrow, by Val Guest.
The flimsier-than-normal card stock package contains an extra, a booklet with the lyrics for all the songs: Here are
a few sample lines: Keep your filthy paws off my silky drawers / Would you pull that crap with Annette? ...
You know that ain't no shit / We'll be gettin' lots of tit / In Greased Lightning ... You know I ain't
braggin' / She's a real pussy wagon ... Ah, now why couldn't I dream up great art like that?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: trailer, 'retrospective interviews'
Packaging: folding card stock case
Reviewed: September 20, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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