Nostalgia is a funny thing. Memory is unreliable enough as it is, but nostalgia has a way of clouding matters even more, turning our memories into something not unlike a aging movie-star diva's closeup: a powerful, unnaturally pretty, simple image of something quite a bit more complex. Few movies offer more of a mainlined, uncut nostalgia trip than the hot rod-happy Grease, a
problematic but ultimately irresistible adaptation of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's hit Broadway musical. For Grease was a '70s nostalgia trip to the '50s that's now also a nostalgia trip to the '70s. The latter offers a more accurate memory, of course—the movie of Grease is unmistakeably iconographic of '70s pop culture.
That said, director Randal Kleiser cannily toyed with his audience's memories of the '50s, as remembered through '50s cinema. Right out of the gate, Kleiser humorously appends the 1955 Oscar-winning song "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" to a love montage with a beach setting that evokes 1953's From Here to Eternity. The teen lovers in question are naive Australian-on-holiday Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) and American boy Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and here, outside of their natural habitats, social mores are blissfully irrelevant. The spell of this opening sequence is, at it must be, broken—unfortunately, this happens by way of a tastelessly animated title sequence, set to the disco-inflected title tune (written for the film by Barry Gibb, and sung by Frankie Valli).
Thereafter, it's back to school at old Rydell High, where we discover Zuko's a greaser (the mechanically inclined leader of a j.d. gang armed with zip guns and called "The T-Birds") and Sandy has taken a surprising turn and enrolled in the school after a parental change of plans. In the lively split-focus number "Summer Nights," the greaser lads and the poodle-skirted girls debrief Sandy and Danny's summer fling along parallel but gender-drawn lines:
Sandy: He was sweet, just turned eighteen.
Danny: Well, she was good—you know what I mean!
Zuko, a dumb brute with a sublimated sensitive side, promptly risks the good thing he has going with Sandy by playing aloof with her for the benefit of his gang of mooks (all played, incidentally, by grown men, many of whom sport five o'clock shadow). All of Grease, right up through its uncomfortably Pygmalion-esque ending, runs on this tension of playing into social (and sometimes self-imposed) pressures on boys and girls to maintain their respective images as cool and desirable. Thankfully, the film at least preserves a semblance of balance by retaining the sequence in which a conciliatory Danny tries to make good by briefly and wrongheadedly pursuing a track career.
On the boys' side, Doody (Barry Pearl), Sonny (Michael Tucci) and Putzie (Kelly Ward) make like the Three Stooges, while cool jerk Kenickie (Jeff Conaway) circles Rydell's alpha female, Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Rizzo's the leader of a female gang of sorts called the Pink Ladies—Frenchy (Didi Conn), Jan (Jamie Donnelly), and Marty (Dinah Manoff)—who invite Sandy into their world of sleepovers and malt shops. Rizzo mocks Sandy's purity in the number "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," but in a stolen moment, Rizzo sings a half-convincing defense of her easiness with men ("There Are Worse Things I Could Do"). Sandy and Danny's mildly troubled romance and a subplot pregnancy scare for Rizzo comprise the meager plot, goosed by the sensible, big-screen-friendly addition of a drag race in the concrete L.A. "River."
The film's excisions and interpolations mostly work, though fans of the stage musical will miss a number of songs, all of them more '50s in tone than their replacements. Sandy's love ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You" (penned by John Farrar) areplaces Marty's more period-appropriate "Freddy My Love," Danny's "Sandy" (by Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon) sounds '50s enough, but so did the play's "Alone at a Drive-In Movie." "It's Raining on Prom Night," "Rock 'n' Roll Party Queen," "Those Magic Changes" and "Mooning" are effectively reduced to background music, though the last would have made a nice male complement to Frenchy's comic number "Beauty School Dropout" (with '50s teen idol Frankie Avalon as "Teen Angel") . The hip-wiggling showstopper "Greased Lightning" gets yanked from Kenickie to give Travolta another song, and Sandy and Danny get a new, triumphant, high-powered duet in the undeniably catchy pop hit "You're the One That I Want" (also by Farrar).
In another smart nod to the '50s, Kleiser casts a number of erstwhile stars, most in invented roles: Eve Arden (Principal McGee), Joan Blondell (waitress Vi), Edd Byrnes (Vince Fontaine, as in the play the sleazy host of "National Bandstand"), Sid Caesar (Coach Calhoun), Alice Ghostley (Mrs. Murdock), Dody Goodman (Blanche Hodel). The prom sequence stars '50s-tribute revival rockers Sha Na Na as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. Their big song is the "Born to Hand Jive" dance contest, one of several big production numbers that allow choreographer Patricia Birch to shine (ill-advisedly, Birch would go on to direct the flop sequel, Grease 2).
Thanks to an accomodation making her character Australian, recording star Olivia Newton-John was able to make a big impression in her American acting debut (especially when sewn into lycra pants for "You're the One That I Want"), and on the heels of his star-making performance in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta could do wrong flashing that big grin and dancing with limber sexual heat. As the corny finale puts it, Travolta and Newton-John "go together/Like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong."
Grease on Blu-ray is a revelation. I wouldn't have thought the film could look this good, but there it is: a bright, vibrant picture with beautiful color and substantial detail that takes us well beyond the relatively low-res of DVD. A muscular Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix does right by the film's plentiful music and maximizes the surround potential of the film's sound effects (from crashing waves to revving engines).
A full complement of bonus features makes its way from the previous DVD editions, beginning with an "Introduction by Randal Kleiser" (:24) and a friendly and informative commentary by director Randal Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch. A Rydell Sing-Along feature is another way of saying "turn on the subtitles to have some homemade karaoke fun."
"The Time, The Place, The Motion: Remembering Grease" (22:27, SD) assembles reminiscences about the film's making, from producers Allan Carr and Robert Stigwood, Randal Kleiser, John Travolta, choreographer Patricia Birch, costume designer Albert Wolsky, director of photography Bill Butler, Didi Conn, Olivia Newton-John, Jeff Conaway, and Stockard Channing.
Eleven "Deleted/Extended/Alternate Scenes" (10:16 with "Play All" option, SD) come with an "Introduction by Randal Kleiser" (:15) in which he explains that the long-lost footage only exists in black and white.
"Grease on DVD Launch Party" (15:13, SD) gives us an all-access pass to the VIP event, including live performances by Newton-John of "Hopelessly Devoted to You," by Travolta and Newton-John of "You're the One That I Want," and by the cast of "Summer Nights." "Grease Memories from John and Olivia" (3:25, SD) is the complete red-carpet interview from that same event.
"The Moves Behind the Music" (8:14, SD) focuses on the work of Birch, with additional comments from Kleiser, Butler, Wolsky, Conn, Newton-John, and Conaway. "Thunder Roadsters" (5:23, SD) examines the appeal of hot rods (and the film's specific cars) with "King of the Kustomizers" George Barris, car builder/fabricator Michael Astamendi, 1948 Ford sedan owner Bob Money, 1952 Cadillac coupe owner Tom McCourry, 1950 Ford club coupe owner Ray Petri, and 1957 Chevy Bel Air owner Mark Gerson.
"John Travolta and Allan Carr 'Grease Day' Interview" (1:47, SD) and "Olivia Newton-John and Robert Stigwood 'Grease Day' Interview" (2:07, SD) come from producer Alan Carr's 1978 TV special—it's a shame the whole special wasn't included on the Blu-ray. Last up are four Photo Galleries and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:11, HD).
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