(Randal Kleiser, USA, 1978)


Accounts of the contemporary American teen movie look to the ’70s – to American Graffiti (1973), Saturday Night Fever (1977), even Animal House (1978) – for the seminal films that shaped this modern genre.

Grease (1978) is often omitted from this tally – oddly, given that it is unquestionably a teen movie, and an enormously popular one.

But even on its first release, Grease never seemed exactly contemporary in any sense. It is a kitsch throwback to B grade ’50s teen movies – suitably camped up as a gaudy, frenetic musical. Arriving via the stage, and often returning to it, this property has acquired the aura of being the ultimate secondary school, eisteddfod-customised teen romp.

It didn’t really occur to me when I first saw Grease at the age of 17 – during, as it happens, my first date – but now the actors really look way too old for their parts. Maybe this has something to do with the technological enhancements wheeled in for the twentieth anniversary re-release. But this discrepancy hardly matters – in fact, it adds to the fun.

The plot is as simple as it can get – a mere skeleton on which to hang the songs and the running wisecracks of veteran comedienne Eve Arden. After a brief but beautiful summer romance, Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) negotiate the tough teen turf of Rydell High. Both Danny’s cool gang, the T-Birds, and Sandy’s new pals, the Pink Ladies, favour a raunchy, cynical approach to life. True love, in this context, seems a distant and difficult possibility for our heroes.

The lean, wiry body of Travolta in motion is a thing of beauty to behold. Next to him, Newton-John is an unfortunate advertisement for Aussie unfunkiness: her head wobbles atop her stiff body like a loose ball bearing. Her ultimate makeover into a supposedly slinky vamp ameliorates this handicap only a little.

In many respects, the other true star of Grease is Stockard Channing as Rizzo. She brings great sass to her bad-girl character and smart, cheeky songs. Channing even manages to bring a little credibility and dignity to the token "serious bit" concerning teen pregnancy.

Randal Kleiser’s direction and Patricia Birch’s choreography are both rather hit-and-miss affairs. The group numbers have the chaotic energy of such previous teen musicals as Summer Holiday (1963), while Newton-John’s lilting solo ballad “Hopelessly Devoted To You” is a dreary, inert interlude. Film histories have cattily enshrined the sad fact that, in the final song, the dancers’ nimble feet are occasionally below the frame line.

For all its blemishes, Grease is still an undeniably enjoyable and colourful confection. If anything, the passage of twenty years has increased its allure as a camp pastiche of an imaginary, bygone era. The songs “Greased Lightnin'”, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”, “You’re the One That I Want” and especially “Beauty School Dropout” with Frankie Avalon, are a treat.

Grease may be the ultimate guilty pleasure, but it is one well savoured.

MORE Kleiser: Flight of the Navigator, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid

© Adrian Martin July 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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