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The Hollywood musical was mostly dead by the late 1970s, with an occasional stage adaptation trying to make a dent in the void. 1972's Broadway hit Grease is a crude, vulgar but energetic musical inspired by the 50s nostalgia craze. The film version Grease had the commercial Right Stuff for 1978, when John Travolta was fresh from Saturday Night Fever and Olivia Newton-John's songs were climbing the charts. It turned out to be a huge commercial hit and one of the most successful musicals of all time. Grease's songs and personalities continue to draw fans. Paramount's new Blu-ray retains the extras from an earlier DVD special edition.
Grease is a comedy on 50s kitsch culture at least three steps removed from its subject. Its jokes have lost their point of reference, imposing 70s vulgarity onto the past, and piling on cultural schtick from as far back as 1930s rah-rah campus comedies. The 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.
The music score generated several solid radio hits. The film's singing stars became famous internationally. Ms. Newton-John would linger several years more on the pop music scene, but for John Travolta Grease became the high point of his first career peak -- a curious career that has so far waxed and waned at least three times.
As in the rowdy stage play, unrelieved crudity masquerades as retro hip. The smutty attitude is consistent throughout. Danny Zuko invites Stockard Channing to "Bite my weenie". The virginal exchange student Sandy finally wins her man by transforming into a slut goddess in a leather getup that looks more like S&M than 50s retro. The hot rod culture of the late 50s is distorted into a fashion show of leather and pompadours, with characters that are genetic hybrids between the Dead End Kids and oversexed Disney animals. 1
We like all of the actors -- the Jackie Joseph sound-alike Didi Conn is downright lovable even when shoehorned into a half-dimensional stereotype. Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta are an attractive couple; Travolta does wonders with his part, making Danny Zuko's leers and snide mannerisms almost charming. As the rage of the previous year's Saturday Night Fever Travolta steals every dance scene.
The adults are icons from older comedy styles, mostly 50s sitcoms. Eve Arden and Sid Caesar's charm is lost amid all the raunch; they're good comedians playing patsies to bad comedy. Joan Blondell, Alice Ghostley and Dody Goodman have extended bits. Frankie Avalon gets a musical number to himself, and ironically makes the best impression of his entire film career. Edd 'Kookie' Byrnes is amusing as an ersatz Dick Clark -- he has the perfect cheap glitz factor already built in to his film persona.
The talent most maligned is Stockard Channing, who plays 'bad girl' Betty Rizzo as a serious character that really belongs in a different picture. Channing provides one or two of the film's few moments of recognizable humanity, as when Betty and Sandy make honest contact for a brief second. But the movie keeps anything like real pain and depth at an arm's length. Betty Rizzo is moving toward a teen tragedy, but after a flip declaration that "the rabbit didn't die", is back dancing like an idiot alongside everyone else. That scene was surely played for satire in the stage original, but this film adaptation doesn't really understand what satire is.
To show its sensitivity, Grease reserves its nastiest jeers for an offensive Latin stereotype, the sluttish Cha Cha (Annette Charles). Cha Cha's dance exhibition does serious damage to any positive memories we might still have from West Side Story.
As a production Grease is truly feeble, starting with direction that defeats any attempt to make something of the musical numbers. Little of the spirited choreography is allowed to peek through Randal Kleiser's disorganized direction. Inconsistent lighting and even focus errors pop up often enough to suggest a rushed, sloppy shoot. The two stars emerge more or less unscathed, but even they cannot survive the unimaginative camera blocking in the gym. The best number is the simple treatment of Olivia's handsomely warbled Hopelessly Devoted to You.
The finale, with its catchy pop song You're the One that I Want, is perhaps the worst designed, worst directed and worst photographed 'big musical' number ever. The dancers do their stuff in broad daylight on a carnival runway, jumping and singing their hearts out in angles 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 -- this is a case of bright personalities overcoming an indifferent production.
Paramount's Blu-ray of Grease improves the film's look, although it can't fix some of the rough photographic edges. The Dolby True-HD track will appeal to audio oriented fans. Savant wrote a 1999 article about some optical hijinks that take place in the malt shop scenes. It looks as though digital work has made some of the crude mattes less obvious, but that blurred-out Coca-Cola sign is still an eyesore.
This Rockin' Rydell Edition most likely repeats the extras from a 2006 DVD release of the same name. Director Randall Kleiser joins choreographer Patricia Birch on the commentary track, and appears in an introduction to tell us that Grease is the highest-grossing musical film of all time. The featurette The Time, the Place, The Motion: Remembering Grease sets the self-congratulatory tone of most of the extras, with interviews with many of the cast members. Several archived interviews from 1978 parties are included, with Travolta, Newton-John and producers Stigwood and Carr. The Moves Behind the Music shows choreographer Birch at work, while car customizer George Barris discusses the Greased Lightning show car in Thunder Roadsters. A long list of deleted/extended/alternate scenes appears in B&W work print form and a "Rydell Sing-Along" presents the musical numbers with readable lyrics. Photo galleries and a trailer round out the package.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grease Blu-ray rates:
1. The earlier DVD Special Edition contained a booklet with the song lyrics: 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 can't I dream up great art like that?
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.