Every month, Fathom Events and TCM present a classic movie for the big screen. Nearly every month, my wife and I go. Normally, I grab my passes without even asking her. When Grease was announced, I asked her if she wanted to see it. I was reluctant about it. She was excited. Passes were secured. On the day of, neither of us were particularly thrilled. We kept coming up with excuses to not go.
I first caught Grease sometime in the mid 1980s as a junior high kid. I was flipping through the channels on the little TV in my parents' bedroom. The opening animated credits sequence caught my attention. As did the catchy theme song by Barry Gibb. I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. I couldn’t take my pubescent eyes off this goofy, nostalgic look at the 1950s as seen through the lens of 1970s Hollywood.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve seen it since. Oh, I probably caught it at least once in college as all the girls seemed to be obsessed with it. I’ve certainly heard most of the soundtrack a million times and caught various scenes as it comes on TV pretty regularly. My favorite college professor hated it and his opinion probably soiled me on the film for years to come.
I never had a real problem with it myself but somehow over the years, I’d come to think of it as a pretty silly thing, not worth my time. My wife likes it a lot more than me, which is why she was initially interested, but it had been a long week and she was quite tired so going to the movies suddenly held no appeal.
But there we found ourselves, in a big theatre waiting for Grease. We guessed at the trivial playing before the film started. We laughed as Ben Mankiewicz quoted lyrics in his introductory comments. Then the lights went down and that crazy, catchy theme song started playing and suddenly, we were both singing along and our entire row shook as we danced in our seats.
Grease is exactly the sort of film that makes these big screen re-releases worthwhile. It's a film that if I catch on television, I’ll leave it playing but likely, busy myself with something else while it plays in the background. I’ll sing along to the songs but pay little attention to anything else. In the theater, the music overwhelms you. Looking around during my screening, I saw a full house singing the songs and moving their feet to the beat. It's easy to see how John Travolta became such a huge star. He’s electrifying on screen. I always forget how tremendous Stockard Channing is as an actress. She’s one of those performers who has had a long career with a big list of credits to her name and loads of awards but who I tend to forget exists until I see her in the next thing. She is such a delight in Grease.
Made in 1978, Grease was based upon the musical of the same name that was created in 1971. It is a nostalgic look at the 1950s and all those sweetly clean movies of that era. But laced in with all the malt shops, poodle skirts, and drag cars is a bit of a darker '70s feel. This is something I never noticed when I watched it as a kid but that really stood out in this viewing. The kids aren’t just necking in the back of those cars but screwing. Condoms break and there's a pregnancy scare. The heroes drink, smoke, and swear. Heck, even the song “Grease Lightning” has lyrics about chicks creaming, getting your rocks off, and once they call the car a “pussy wagon.” It's all still pretty PG-rated stuff, but there’s definitely a little bit of an edge to it.
They got some great old '50s celebrities to join in the fun. Frankie Avalon sings “Beauty School Dropout,” Eve Arden plays the principal, Joan Blondell is a waitress, and Sid Caesar is the sports coach. Those are great little winks at the audience and a lot of fun for those in the know.
The story remains decidedly light. Danny Zuko (Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) have a summer romance, but when she winds up at Rydell High, same as him, she finds that he’s no longer the sweet boy she knew that summer but a greased-up leader of a gang. She tries to join the girls gang, The Pink Ladies, led by Rizzo (Channing) but finds they are too bad for her tastes (they drink, smoke, and make it with the boys). The heart of the story is whether Danny will clean up his act for Sandy, or vice versa.
Other characters get the slightest of arcs. There is the aforementioned pregnancy scare, one of the Pink Ladies drops out of school to become a hair dresser, and the boys spend their time souping-up a car. But none of these stories really go anywhere and ultimately, they are just set-ups for a song or two.
It's the songs that anyone cares about anyways. They are pretty far-out and way cool, as a Greaser might say. With the exception of the theme song, which has a very '70s disco feel to it, the rest are very '50s and very fun. I dare you not to sing along.
Grease is a hoot to watch on the big screen and you can see it on April 11 and/or 14. Please visit the Fathom Events site for details. On April 24, a 40th Anniversary Edition will be available on 4K UltraHD, Blu-ray, and DVD.