Back to School Month: "Grease" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Back to School Month: "Grease" Review

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content including references, teen smoking and drinking, and language)
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: June 16, 1978
Directed by: Randal Kleiser
Genre: Musical/Romance

Danny Zuko (John Travolta) is the archetypal 1950s bad boy; he is obsessed with cars, racing, and girls. However, he secretly has a heart of gold, which he hides from his friends at school for fear of being deemed uncool—just about the worst thing that could happen to a teen in the world of "Grease." While on summer vacation far away from his pack of friends, he shows that softer side to fellow teen Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), and the two fall in love. Unfortunately, she is from Australia, so the two have to part ways when the summer is up because she has to go home.

In a twist of fate that only happens in the movies, it turns out that Sandy and her family are staying in California. She enrolls in high school at Rydell, where Danny also goes to school. She has no idea her summer love attends  the same school until Rizzo (Stockard Channing) puts two and two together and realizes the Danny in Sandy's summer story is Zuko. Rizzo sets up a surprise meeting, but poor Sandy is turned off by Danny's coolness in front of her friends and shuns him. She begins dating jock Tom Chisum (Lorenzo Lamas) instead; though he doesn't light her fire the way Danny did. Danny, mistakenly thinking that Sandy wants a jock, tries out for every sports team under the sun, much to the chagrin of Coach Calhoun (Sid Caesar).

Several brilliant songs are sung in lieu of dialogue to further the plot, including the classics "Look at Me I'm Sandra Dee" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You." After making up and breaking up again, the star-crossed lovers must find their way back to each other, singing and dancing the entire way to express their emotions. Will Danny ever stop worrying about what his friends think long enough to woo Sandy for good? Will Sandy ever assert herself and declare what she wants, or will poor Danny have to keep guessing?

The play Grease by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs hit Broadway in 1972, and it almost instantly became a smash hit. It came out at just the right time because the play was set in 1958, and in the early '70s, the 1950s were being celebrated in pop culture. It was a little piece of nostalgia that hit all the right chords with adults at the time who loved reminiscing about what is still largely considered to be the Golden Age of rock 'n' roll. It was inevitable that a film version would soon be commissioned, but even with the success of the play, nobody could have foretold what a pop-culture phenomenon the movie would become. Not only was it a huge hit at the box office but the official soundtrack also sold like hot cakes. The movie spawned a sequel and has had several Broadway revivals, most of them based on the popularity of the movie rather than the original play.

A big reason why the movie took off so well is because it starred one of the hottest actors on the planet at the time, John Travolta. He was fresh off his hit disco movie "Saturday Night Fever" and was at the height of his singing and dancing skills. He imbued every one of the lines from his songs with a passion that made the ladies swoon and line up to see the movie multiple times. Newton-John was also big in the pop-culture landscape at the time, having had multiple successful songs and albums in the very recent past. Still, it was Travolta and his endearing, endlessly charming performance as Danny that captured the imaginations of the audience. No matter how many comebacks the actor makes, and he's made a couple already, "Grease" will likely stand as one of his best works in what is already a long and storied career that shows no signs of ending soon.

Though the cast beyond Travolta is also good, the songs are the big draw here. The tale of on-again, off-again teenage love is as old as time. What sets "Grease" apart from its competitors, other than Travolta, is the music and lyrics that tell more story than any of the spoken dialogue. The choreography is also good, particularly during "Greased Lightnin'" and "We Go Together," but it is still the music that really counts. The soundtrack is a collection of catchy pop confections that have inspired many a karaoke performance. That they are now a hit with a new generation and remain nearly as popular today as they were in 1978 is a testament to Casey and Jacobs' brilliant song mastery.

Rating: 4 out of 5