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Wayback Wednesday: Grease (1978)

$20 to anyone who knows all of the ACTUAL lyrics to “We Go Together.”

Over the weekend I convinced my mom to watch High School Musical (2006) for the first time. She enjoyed it! Well, as much as anyone who wasn’t a tween in the 2000s and didn’t experience the full extant of its cultural impact could. As I was watching it though, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another pair of teenagers from different worlds who fell in love, wound up at the same school, and then broke into musical numbers with their memorable group of friends. I can only be talking about Grease (1978). Fun fact, when I was little and my dad said we were going to watch a movie called Grease, I totally thought we were going to watch a movie about GREECE. Which, for a kid obsessed with Greek mythology, I was pretty jazzed about. Though I came to find out Grease is light on gods and monsters, it’s still filled with toe-tapping music and iconic characters so 10-year-old me loved it. 24-year-old me on the other hand was a little…let down.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 4.52.45 PM
Credit: / Paramount Pictures

Based on the musical of the same name, Grease follows Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson, two teenagers who meet during the summer of 1958. Despite a mutual attraction, Danny and Sandy struggle to be together because they come from different worlds: he’s a rebellious greaser and she’s the strait-laced girl next door. They both try to bend for the other and make the relationship work, often with the misguided help from their friends.

I can confidently say that it’s been a solid 10 years, maybe more, since I’ve seen Grease. As a kid, I remember absolutely adoring this movie. I watched it over and over again, listened to the soundtrack on repeat, and was so excited when my family and I went to see the stage show. For a long time it was my favourite movie musical and honestly, the similarities are probably why I liked the first High School Musical so much. Of course, we all know there are MANY other reasons why High School Musical is so likeable. But as I watched Grease for the first time as an adult – one whose taste in movies and music has greatly diversified over the years – I realized that I didn’t care for it as much this time around. Don’t get me wrong, I still really appreciate the wonderful music, the one stellar performance (oh, we’ll talk about her) and the iconography of it all, but this re-watch was a real eye-opener for me. I still enjoy Grease, but age has made me realize how lacking this fan favourite really is.

Grease starts out on a high note. Danny and Sandy’s beach montage of love is romantic and sweet, and then heading straight into the title song sung by Frankie Valli is a superb way to set the tone of the movie. Next we meet The T-Birds, The Pink Ladies, and the rest of Rydell High (fantastic character introductions), as well as the twist that Danny and Sandy now go to the same school. It’s a promising start, right? So, why after that does the movie become significantly less interesting? Seriously, nothing really happens in this movie. I seem to remember more action and intrigue in Grease, but no, it’s surprisingly thin on plot. Not that I need Grease to be a non-stop, edge-of-your-seat thrill-ride, but a little more liveliness and dimension to the characters and story would be appreciated. It’s really only like eight simple scenes (the sleepover, the dance, the race, etc…) dragged out, with time filled by musical numbers. It has the pacing of a stage musical which is great, but not as much energetic fun as a live performance. The story is simple and sweet and of course the music is awesome, but the when you really look at this movie, there isn’t a ton going on to rave about. Let me put it this way: If it wasn’t a musical number or a scene involving Rizzo, I had a hard time staying interested.

Okay, so Stockard Channing is definitely the best part of this movie, right? We can all agree that Rizzo is our favourite Grease character? Awesome, moving on. Channing is phenomenal. Cool, gutsy, badass, confident, and unflappable, Channing’s performance as Rizzo is impossible not to be mesmerized by. It helps that Rizzo is the only character written with any depth or genuine intrigue, but what really sells it is that Channing plays her with such defiance, fire, and lovable prickliness. We should all aspire to be more like Rizzo. Except for the whole, “oh your condom broke? Fuck it, we’ll have sex anyway…oh no, whoops, I might be pregnant!” That might not be the best thing to take away from Rizzo. Being utterly fabulous though? That’s a lesson that we all should learn well.

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John star as Danny and Sandy, a couple that I once thought was epic, but now see for how bland they actually are. Travolta and Newton-John share a decent amount of chemistry, but not once throughout the movie did I get an understanding of why these two wanted to be together so badly. I think we needed more than that quick opening montage to really establish how deep, passionate, and meaningful their attraction is. They don’t have much of a connection. Throughout the movie they hardly interact and when they do, it’s kind of awkward, like they couldn’t care less if they end up together or not. The lack of evidence of their love makes a song like, “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” feel unearned. Speaking of unearned, I used to think it was empowering how Sandy became her true, bad self at the end, but after re-watching it, she never once in the movie had a problem with who she was before. She enjoyed being “Sandra Dee,” never expressed interest in being as edgy as the other Pink Ladies, and only decides to change when she sees how she doesn’t fit in with Danny’s crowd. You know what? Danny doesn’t deserve Sandy. She deserve someone who will love her for her authentic self!

Another element of Grease that doesn’t totally hold up are the other T-Birds. I zoned out anytime they showed up. Kenickie is pretty cool, but watching the rest of them is almost painful. First of all, I can’t buy any of these clearly adult men as teenagers. I’m sorry, I just can’t, and it makes me laugh to look at them. Secondly, they spend the whole movie performing a very specific type of comic relief that feels like an odd Marx Brothers / Three Strooges homage. But it’s nowhere near as funny and feels dated as Hell. Even for 1978. Also, they’re unnecessarily obnoxious assholes to literally everyone else they meet. It’s exhausting and seriously unfunny. No, when it comes to Grease side characters, gimme the Pink Ladies any day. Jan, Marty, Frenchy…I absolutely LOVE them. Almost as much as I love the music!

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Grease is one of the most iconic and beloved musicals of all time. It’s a musical that even non-musical fans can get behind and that’s in part to the ridiculously catchy songs. Each one is memorable in its own right, and when it comes to filming and choreography, so different! My favourites though have always been, “Summer Nights,” “Beauty School Dropout,” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” They all totally hold up! They have just the right amount of fun and emotion, and also help to move the story along and give the audience a slightly better understanding of the characters. Which is helpful because when it comes to writing, the movie takes a very, “here are the basic characters and none of them change throughout the movie except for Sandy for no good reason.” Yep, it’s a good thing those songs are so excellent!

To this day, Grease remains a movie that is brimming with sweetness, charm, and incredibly iconic scenes and characters. Do I love it as much as I did when I was a kid though? No. It holds up for the most part and I’d probably watch it again, but I’m more likely to listen to the soundtrack or go see the stage show again. Honestly, I’d rather watch High School Musical again. What can I say? I was a tween in the 2000s.

Are you a fan of Grease? What are your favourite movie musicals?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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