Back in the fifties musicals combined a real story with music. Greats like South Pacific took on racial prejudice and war all to the beat of snappy tunes. Ironically, Grease, a musical about the fifties failed on the plot side but the music has remained a staple for decades. Admittedly the story line here is slim but the sheer energy of the show carries the film. I saw the original play on Broadway with my wife and what pulled me in was the life that the show contained. Much of the same enthusiasm transferred over to the 1978 flick and now a new DVD edition has been released.
The film opens as the summer of 1958 has just ended. With vacation over it is time for high school students around the country to go back to school regaling their friends with their summer time exploits. One such boy is Danny Zuko (John Travolta), the leader of Rydell High’s gang, the T-Birds. With his friends gather around he tells them about this girl he met over the summer, Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John). At the end of the summer she was supposed to go back to her home in Australia but unknown to Danny she remained in the States and is starting at Rydell. As Danny is telling his friends about the summer fling Sandy is relating a different version to her new friends the Pink Ladies. This of course leads to one of the most famous song in the show, Summer Loving. The leader of the Pink Ladies, Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) loves to stir things up and reintroduces Danny and Sandy. As their romance again blossoms the Pink Ladies try to introduce Sandy to American culture. At a slumber party Frenchie (Didi Conn) and Marty Maraschino (Dinah Manoff) relate the finer points of boys, fashion and smoking to the naïve girl. Things seem to go well for the reunited couple until the night of the big dance. The dance is going to be on an American Bandstand show and all the kids will be on television. This prompts Danny’s ex girlfriend Cha Cha DiGregorio (Annette Charles) to want to get back together since he is known to be the best and she is sure that together they will win the dance contest. This is followed by typical teen angst Hollywood musical style. Danny tries to give Sandy his ring. She takes it and later throws it back at him. Rizzo is certain she is pregnant by her boy friend, another T-Bird name Kenickie (Jeff Conaway). While all this is going on what passes for drama comes in the form of the impending drag race with a rival gang, the Scorpions. The boys hang around the school’s auto shop fixing up the street racer and singing ‘Greased Lightening’. When the time comes for the race Kenickie is knocked out by the car door and Danny has to win the race. By the time of the end of school year carnival everything is set right. Sandy has turned in her poodle skirt for sleek black leather and gets Danny back, Rizzo is not pregnant and Frenchie is recovering from being a beauty school drop out.
This movie is a long way from the view of teens as shown in Rebel without a Cause. It is far too idealized but it has some of the best music around in years. Sure teenagers hardly act the way shown here but the purpose of the flick is not to show a realistic view of teen life but just to entertain and on that count Grease works and has endure the test of time. I seriously doubt there is a Karaoke bar in the world that does not have Summer Loving in its song list. These are the songs that people wind up singing long after the closing credits. Grease also has the lamest gangs in the world. The T-Birds and Scorpions might as well take Sesame Street for their turfs. You can tell the Pink Ladies are the tough girls since they are almost always smoking. Like most musicals there seems to be no reason to burst into song at the drop of a hat but the audience is glad they did. There is nothing wrong with a little nostalgic escapism. The show worked as a play and is constantly being revived. This demonstrates that the audience needs this type of entertainment.
This is a classic cast although believing they are teenagers is quite a stretch. I have not seen high school students this old looking since the 1958 version of the Blob with Steve McQueen. The cast was put together to cash in on popular stars of 1978. John Travolta was just off an amazing success in ’Saturday Night Fever’. No one would have thought that the actor who played the dumb Vinnie Barbarino in ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ could sing and dance like this. He gets to show off his famous moves often here and it is great to watch again. Olivia Newton-John was a pop chart princess in the late seventies and a natural for the role. As the sweet Sandy she is believable but you have to wonder about her sudden transformation into ‘bad Sandy’ at the end. Stockard Channing is nothing short of brilliant as Rizzo. She is tougher than the rest of the girls and a real self assured gal. Channing has a natural sense of comic timing that carries the role. The adults are almost never seen here but the ones that do get screen time are funny. This is especially true of the comic character actress Dody Goodman. Also making an appearance is one of the founders of television comedy Sid Caesar.
There was a lack luster, plain vanilla DVD release of Grease a few years back. Fortunately, Paramount has decided to revisit the title and give it the treatment a culture icon like this deserves. The main problem with the old release is they used the aging master for the Laser disc version. This edition is a completely re-mastered one and the improvements are welcomed. The video snaps, the colors are much better and well balanced. This is the best this film has looked in years. The old edition’s contrast was muddy but here the demarcation between light and dark are sharp. Less work was required for the audio. The Dolby 5.1 sound track is basically the same as used in previous releases including the flaws. It appears that some audio elements have been added to try to give a fuller sound but seems oddly out of place. There are also additional background vocals but they apparently had some problems with getting the additional tracks to fully synchronize. For those that grew up with the original film's soundtrack embedded in your mind the differences will pop out at you. This edition also sports a nice selection of extras. First there is the packaging. The disc is clothed in a little ‘leather’ jacket. It is strange to have to undress your DVD before playing but it is a novel touch. The Rydell sing along lets you set up your own Karaoke so you and your friends can feel like a part of the film. There are almost a dozen deleted, extended or alternate scenes that are fun to watch but admittedly add little to the film. There is a little featurette showing the 25th anniversary DVD launch party and a chat with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as they look back on the filming. Another featurette details the chorography used in the many dance numbers and a look at the Thunder Road crew rounds things out. This film is just good old fashion fun and is something the family can enjoy together. The tunes are timeless and are still fun to listen to again.