Registering the Registry 2020: Grease (1978)

Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we regale one another with tales of those summer nights, soup up our automatic, systematic, hydromatic roadsters, and confess you’re the one that I want (one that I want, hoo hoo hoo, honey). From Randal Kleiser, it’s Grease from 1978! No holding back, let’s dive in and have some fun with it!

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You want an idea of just how deeply Grease has permeated American youth culture? I grew up in Southern Arizona, right by the Mexican border, so the school culture down there is a grab-bag between the two countries’ trends of the day, usually favoring anything south of the wall unless it’s already entrenched or a MAJOR hot new trend. During my freshman year of high school, I took a theater elective, and our big first semester-ending project was to group up and produce a mini-play based on a fairy tale in a non-typical setting. It must be understood, I got paired with the people who absolutely, positively did not want to be in the class anymore at all, so something like 95% of the work on our Cinderella But It’s The 50s Play — conceptualization and storyboarding and writing and costuming, even a few roles — was done by me all on my lonesome. However, there were exactly two things my classmates were heavily invested in, actively enthusiastic over including at all costs. First: inserting from Hannah Montana into the opening dialogue. Second: performing the ENTIRE “You’re the One That I Want” song and dance number to end the play apropos of nothing. They went out there before God and everyone with scripts in hand and flat inflections because they hadn’t taken a second to learn their lines, but come performance’s close ten minutes later, we had a near-pitch perfect rendition of Grease’s closing performance, excepting myself because I’d come down with a stomach bug that precluded energetic dancing and would subsequently spend the next twelve hours gradually Dying.

Understand, this was a long time between any of the film’s numerous theatrical rereleases or home releases, before the sing-along release, before the US revival tour, even before Glee’s entire episode using Grease songs. Glee didn’t even exist at this point (though trust me, my classmates loved Glee to the last), and I can’t find any evidence the Venezuelan TV series adaptation Somos tú y yo received any broadcast spaces in the Sonora, Mexico area. It was, for all intents and purposes, just THERE, a thing they’d all come across on TV, or at a Blockbuster, or through mail distribution Netflix, or just their parents’ VHS/DVD collection. A group of disinterested teens thirty years removed from the movie’s initial release, fifty years removed from the period it pines over, a million miles away from any cultural center that looks remotely like Rydell High’s Anytown USA surroundings, and yet everyone knew the lyrics by heart and contrived together approximations of the movie’s steps inside a single class period. This thing has its tendrils deep in the American psyche. The story of greaser tough guy Danny Zuko and goody two-shoes ingénue Sandy Olsson as they navigate peer pressure, repressive cultural norms, and each other’s fast-flying feet across a senior year of high school seems destined to hang around THE reference point for nostalgia-driven musicals for the rest of time. Or at least until Hollywood’s musical side comes back into vogue like the Oscar committees have wanted for decades. Keep holding out hope, boys, you’ll have use for that Best Musical category someday.

Course, Grease has been purpose-engineered to resonate with the largest number of hearts and minds possible since its debut on the Chicago theater circuit in 1971. Originally written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey as a reflection of Polish-American teenage life in Chicago’s seedy urban environs, its nightclub debut form boasted a far harder edge with regards to taboo topics, R-rated language, and acknowledgement of exactly how perverse teens can be in their interests and behaviors. It was also far more conventional comedy-drama play in those days, still containing songs, but entirely different pieces and in much fewer much numbers than the form we know today. Interested parties in Ken Waissman and Maxine Fox brought the show to the off-Broadway circuit in 1972, where it began morphing into a form we’d recognize today with toned-down content and an entirely new, larger songbook, before a jump to the main circuit further refined and sanitized the material. By the time director Randal Kleiser signed to the film adaptation in 1977, Grease’s roots as a Pollack creation were gone baby gone, and any sign of the play’s origin in the inner city was wiped away when Kleiser exercised his prerogative and set the movie in a generic all-American suburban school. With the film and tie-in soundtrack both doing monster numbers on the market (a byproduct of John Travolta’s rising star after Saturday Night Fever, Olivia Newton-John’s years long success on the pop charts, and the forever-popular Star Wars effect of “blockbuster event movies can be frothy and fun again so everyone’s GOTTA see THIS!”), we see the trend towards scrubbing the work of any and all blue content continue to this day — Jacobs created a School Version of the play for performance at middle and high schools with innuendos and explicit lyrics excised along with any risqué plot points, which has gone on to become the basis for televised renditions of the play and its songs in the 21st century, including the Glee episode and Fox’s Live rendition in 2016.

Grease’s Broadway cast.

Kinda funny to think every teenager’s first favorite musical is nowadays counted as too raunchy for a teenaged audience, but I suppose one must keep that multi-multi-multi-platinum soundtrack in circulation by whatever means necessary. On watch, I’ve gotta agree with the decades-long consensus here: the songs in Grease are THE reason to watch, THE reason it has endured anywhere so long as it’s done. Maybe they become sickly and hateful on endless cultural loop after long enough, and maybe, by my favorite film writer Tim Brayton, the film version’s soundtrack does a piss-poor job of capturing a 1950s feel — those songs inherited from the stage show are definitely grounded in early white rock ’n’ roll, while new contributions from Barry Gibb (the title track), John Farrar (both of Newton-John’s leading numbers), and Louis St. Louis (“Sandy”) confuse the aesthetic with whatever disco/pop/ballad vibes they damn well please. No matter. Despite a lack of sonic cohesion by any objective standard, Grease’s frequent musical numbers feel like they belong to one another, blast through the weirdness of a throwback like “Greased Lightning” sitting in close-proximity to contemporary radio standard like “Hopelessly Devoted to You” by way of simple high quality. These are the songs of the young, of teenage lovers sharing their dramatically different views on a summer’s fling in the same key, of romantic and sexual desires accorded the same level of wistful earworminess, of a hot new musical style barging into the high schools of America and shouting at the kids in the halls, “Hey! This is everything you’ve been feeling deep down inside made proud and loud to the nth degree! Get IN on it!” There’s horniness behind these lyrics, cruelty and pining and self-loathing and jealousy all communicating through a filter of exuberance, made visual by the sight of huge crowds in motion, made resonant by Travolta and Newton-John utterly killing it on vocals. It puts me in mind of in the corner of musical theater rock, one of those movies whose upper moments stand as the best of its genre, and rightfully dragged a generation of impressionable minds into undying fandom for just how polished and stunning it all looks and sounds.

Course, as with Purple Rain’s showstopper on-stage performances covering some incredibly unfortunate romance storytelling, Grease has to contend with the lively tones of its best numbers coexisting with outright backwards gender politics. Y’all know the routine if you know anything about Grease: Sandy spends the whole movie flitting in and out of love with Danny as it becomes clear the sensitive guy she fell in love with over the summer is also a street-racing hardass through and through, so after escaping a date rape and seeing him in total happiness from winning a drag race against Craterface (Dennis Cleveland Stewart), Sandy turns to aspiring beautician friend Frenchie (Didi Conn) for makeover into a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, sexually dominant greaser gal, and we all roll our eyes because oh my God why would you do that. While Jacobs and Casey have stated they intended this as a subversion of what they saw as universal trends in 1950s American media (the bad boy almost always goes good for his girl, so we’ll have our good girl go bad for her man), it’s hard to say the film as produced does anything to make this out as a remotely positive thing. Sandy’s experiences with Danny throughout the story are defined by unceasing insecurity over how he perceives her once she learns about his social clique. She thinks he’s over and done with her on multiple occasions, and though it’s clear he’s just as head-over-heels for her as always at every turn, their final direct encounter before her makeover is defined by Danny expressing his love via trying to force himself on her sexually. The climactic drag race sees Sandy singing a mournful reprise of Rizzo’s (Stockard Channing) mocking number, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” a direct attack on her pure, innocent character, now reframed as a sorrow-laden goodbye to everything she needs to ditch to make things work, even though Danny never demands she change a whit in public or private. That her new persona in the final scene dances with a shimmying, commanding manner and pushes Danny around with her high-heels as he begs at her feet only makes it seem like her trauma has made Sandy think she has to put out and put out hard to bring back the guy she fell for last summer, which is not what I’d call a happy ending in the slightest.

To give the film benefit of the doubt, there is indication its script and creatives know it can’t be a wholly uncritical nostalgia trip without stumbling over the decade’s worse aspects, and so insert numerous indications not everything’s so peachy keen. The whole plot about Danny and Sandy’s relationship entering a rocky patch starts because Sandy’s new girl gang the Pink Ladies introduce the lovers in front of Danny’s gang the T-Birds, and Danny tries to play it off like he’s never seen Sandy in his life to maintain his image. As the film goes on, the four other members of each gang strike up their own subplots around their dating and falling in love, with a particularly striking sequence in the malt shop during the second act. Danny and Sandy are pressed up against the camera and hiding behind a menu, looking to get some privacy, only for one of the T-Birds to interrupt their date and pull his own in, and then another, and another, and another, until the entirety of both gangs have arrived with their dates, turning the background into a long stretch of tables and chairs and boys and girls in each other’s arms, while Danny and Sandy still squirm at bottom frame. Movie’s directly saying the man acted like a schmuck in rejecting Sandy to maintain his image, because literally everyone they know are perfectly fine with the exact same kind of romance they had going before he fouled. We can see this continue on through the school dance and into the final carnival, the inciting incident and main reason we have a story in the first place made ridiculous by greasers and girly-gals dating with no problem whatsoever, Sandy and Danny only kept apart by false-colored, self-imposed adhesion to cultural norms.

And trust me, those demanding cultural norms as matters enforced through internalization rear their heads in more places than just the main romance. Danny’s got a small slice of his own here when he’s pushed into trying out sports and undertakes a comedic sequence in which John Travolta keeps banging everyone’s lights clean out. He makes letterman for track in the final sequence, only to shed the jacket on seeing Sandy to reveal there’s dick all about him turned Jock by the experience. Rizzo’s late-film pregnancy subplot indicates her shame over potentially getting knocked up is only shameful due to her perception it should be so, by way of her hell to ’em all number “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Frenchie’s ideals towards becoming a beautician give the film its absolute best exploration of this idea when she asks for a guardian angel to give her advice, and lo! do the heavens part to reveal teen idol Frankie Avalon, her projection of a 50s youth’s perceived cultural arbiter singing the tender ballad “Beauty School Dropout” that straight insults her to her face and shits all over her dreams in the midst of a heavenly soundstage. You pick through Grease, and there are impressions of intent to tell a story about 50s conformist culture, the real poison thereof existing only in the minds of the young drilled into thinking the world came prebuilt with hard boundaries they can’t cross on penalty of unending pain, and how they grapple with it through the eyes of authors and audiences living (on release) in a more permissive, progressive decade.

Thing about impressions, though: they need to pan out in practice for the effect to mean a damn. Grease the movie contains aspirations about a critical reflection on its decade of choice, but I’ve inflated their prominence for the sake of highlighting a point. In the film proper, all of this is fifteen, maybe twenty percent of the picture by volume, tops. Every other inch of it is dancing and singing and comedy and light-hearted, mostly good-natured fun. The movie’s got such an overwhelming focus on ensuring everyone has a good time, the TV show-sponsored school dance spills from act two closer to devour a significant chunk of act three across six whole songs and an enormous, constantly shifting dance number, with only the presence of a teen-chasing radio host to indicate the film’s still interested in examining the seedier side of 50s culture in detail. It must be understood, of course, that this does not necessarily constitute a mark against the film. Though the whole thing with the dance running so long makes a weird structural decision, this is also a picture so dedicated to its goal of helping everyone walk out the theater with a big ol’ smile on their face as to end with the central couple hopping in John Travolta’s roadster and literally flying into the wild blue yonder. You can make this work, this majority celebration with responsibly-adopted points of deeper reflection and acknowledgement of less savory aspects left to subtext. Fantasy with mild undertones of cultural reflection and critique is the watchword for Grease, and if it got there unblemished, I’d happily let the film off the hook. Some of my friends can’t abide any amount of nostalgia for days when a significant number of Americans lived abject lives nothing like the peppy world of Grease; I’m usually inclined to agree, yet I find no ill intent nor effect in this light fantastical vision.

What I do find, however, is failure to square the equation vis a vis making the cultural critique central to Danny and Sandy’s romance AND throw all concerns to the wind for a magical vibe-fest. What’s otherwise subtextual is right there at the forefront when Sandy overhauls her entire life for Danny’s sake, and the clash between intents is loud and messy. As mentioned, Sandy’s transformation is seemingly the result of trauma and an entire year of growing self-loathing, while Danny’s own transformation is both barely hinted at compared to her own and easily discarded within seconds while hers remains to final shot. All the stuff mentioned above regarding their fellow gang members hooking up is still there for the carnival finale — including a complete defanging of Rizzo’s pregnancy scare — so we’re out here going, “Now Sandy has made herself into the perfect woman for Danny and they’ll live happily ever after!” while four whole entire couples are standing mere feet to their left, having taken one another for who and what they are with no expectation of radical overhauls in looks or personality, doing just fine, and nothing in the whirling, sweet as candy imagery or sonic quality of the last song indicates the movie realizes a whit of the irony here. What gets me is, it would take literally nothing to make this work: just dial back the rape-iness of Danny’s actions at the drive-in, play up him wanting to change for Sandy’ benefit a little, and make the ending sequence into a bit of a Gift of the Magi-type deal. “I thought you wanted a greaser girl!” “I thought you wanted a varsity guy!” And then we laugh off how foolish we’ve been and have fun with our new looks for the day, comfortable in the knowledge what matters is who we are to each other rather than the boxes we’ve chosen to fit some societal standard, and it’s keen. Same movements, same beats, same hints at deeper thought about the decade’s repressive angles throughout, just tweaked an infinitesimal bit to let both parties engage with the theme and display their love on even ground without undermining previous efforts to communicate this idea!

In pursuing the twin goals of thought-free fun and mild social commentary, Grease stumbles on an all-too-common issue, that one cannot invest so heavily in the one without causing the other to suffer. Everything it has going musically and choreographically remains a winner, make no doubt, while the material with potential to elevate it as a filmic work instead drags it down by way of following its creators’ ass-backwards perception of what constitutes a subversive move at the last second, which prevents proper completion of a minimal yet potentially affecting thematic throughline. You should understand, I contend this means Grease the film remains well worth seeing, though perhaps as an introduction to Grease the cultural phenomena rather than THE be-all end-all production. It’s rather interesting how the highest-profile version of the play is one released long before the sanitization process was complete, and though I lowkey implied this process was a bad thing higher up, it’s also my understanding Sandy’s transformation has become a common enough “what the fuck” point for audiences and theater troops as to result in smarter engagement with her side of the romance in modern stagings. I’d run a, “Watch Grease as a cultural relic from a time when boomer tastes rightly ruled the market as the dominant cultural force rather than as the metastasized stranglehold on American cultural tastes they’ve become” bit, but for my close friends who don’t care for the film, it’s evident Grease has enormous staying power because of “Greased Lighting,” because of “Summer Nights,” because of “Sandy,” “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” “You’re the One That I Want,” all the good stuff. Those then-teens in my high school theater class make it clear: musical fandom springs eternal. Consider and/or watch Grease, then, as a collection of fantastic musical numbers with a kinda naff story realized by charismatic actors who’re too old to play any teenager by half.

(Point is, Repo Man’s the better film with scenes shot in the LA River and a flying car, and Hairspray’s the better nostalgia throwback to roughly the same time period with elements of cynicism about the day’s social structure, both the John Waters original and the musical remake. If Grease made the Registry, we gotta get those two in as well.)

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Course, I’m only one body and mind, with one perspective on Grease. What’d y’all think of the film? Any favorite moments to shout or differences in opinion regarding its story and themes? Leave a comment below, and stay tuned for next week’s piece! Following a successful run as the characters on Saturday Night Live, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd teamed with John Landis to bring Jake and Ellwood Blues to the big screen in an epic adventure involving Illinois Nazis, numerous blues and soul singers, and a holy mission from Gahd. It’s The Blues Brothers from 1980, and you can find it for streaming through AMC and Peacock, or rental and purchase at all the usual vendors. Catch you then!

Gargus also writes plenty more reviews over on , and rambles about this and that from time to time over on .

I write on the National Film Registry.