Reviewed by Jeff DeLuzio
Rating: 1 Beans
With the recent anniversary rerelease of "Grease", and the resurrection of Travolta's acting career, the 1978 film, which originally played to full houses but decidedly mixed reviews, now wears the label of "classic" and receives uncritical acclaim in the popular media. I note, with some dismay, that the soundtrack of "Grease" has become a staple again at high school dances: adolescents waxing nostalgic for an imaginary 1970s groove to a film which waxed nostalgic for an imaginary 1950s. Lost in the recent hoopla is the fact that the original film is implausibly cast and shallowly directed.
Even those used to seeing twentysomethings pretend to be teenagers onscreen find our ability to suspend disbelief stretched to breaking. Travolta, already too old for 19 when he made "Saturday Night Fever", looks like an adult dressed as a greaser for Hallowe'en. The rest of the cast appear even more suited to play high school staff, rather than students. Stockard Channing was thirty-four at the time. Films can create their own reality, but this is too much. Of course, the performers can sing and (with the exception of Olivia) dance, and that's what a musical is about. Perhaps these are the only standards by which "Grease" should be judged.
Capturing the energy of a stage musical on film is not an enviable task. In an attempt to connect to the original audience, the creators discofied the 50sesque soundtrack. The results recall not the actual 1950s, but the 70fied "faux 50s" (to steal Howard Junker's phrase) created by the post-second-season episodes of the sitcom "Happy Days." The addition of new numbers only adds to the confusion of era. The theme song, for example, has a disco beat and lyrics which recall the self-expression-obsessed Me Decade more readily than the conformist 50s. Unsurprisingly, contemporary high school students often regard this film as part of the 1970s retro package.
These things might have been overlooked. It's really a film about adolescence, its supporters would say, and the musical numbers feature high energy and decent choreography. These elements might have carried the show for me, had Randal Kleiser, who directed, and Woodward and Carr, who adapted the original script, shown they understood Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's stage "Grease."
No one expects musicals to be deep, though a few manage to dip beneath a mere shiny surface. "Grease", even on stage, was no "Cabaret", but its script aspired to more than mere nostalgic musing and flashy production numbers. The 5-hour 1971 amateur production, and the shorter Broadway hit upon which the film, ultimately, is based, balanced the sentimental reminiscing with parody and satire. We aren't entirely supposed to applaud the guys when they harass the geeky Eugene. Ingenuous Sandy's ultimate transformation into a slut, and tough-girl Rizzo's gradual emergence as more than her reputation, reveal the realities beneath the masks we often wear during adolescence. The play both celebrates and, in a limited way, questions the exaggerated sexual politics of high school. The film adaptation tramples clumsily over these subtler touches, almost as if a particularly self-absorbed and unselfcritical adolescent were directing the show. Rather than a sometimes amusing, sometimes satiric reflection on the 50s and teenhood, we get a morality tale teaching that boys should be thickheaded jerks and girls should be male-catering sluts. The theme song may claim that "conventionality belongs to yesterday," but the film reinforces the worst kind of bowing to peer pressure.
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