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Grease: Pop-culture icon's energy keeps it popular

By Vladimir Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing

Screenplay by Bronte Woodard, based on the stage musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

Directed by Randal Kleiser

Grease is the word, or rather, Grease is the world. A hugely popular movie when first released in 1978, a force behind the best-selling soundtrack for the 20 years since, very successful now in its anniversary rerelease (no, there are no computer-generated characters making cameo appearances; only the soundtrack was remastered) - Grease exists in the rarefied strata of pop culture, simultaneously primal and highly postmodern in its appeal, as artificial as the milieu it depicts.

The time is the 1950s, the location is Rydell High School, the characters are a group of high school seniors (gamely played by a mismatched array of 30ish actors), the genre is musical. Danny (limber John Travolta) meets sweet Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) over the summer, then, when the classes start, peer pressure keeps them apart - at least until they work it out and get back together. The above is a highly exhaustive summary of the plot. The time when Danny and Sandy are falling in love is not chronicled (the opening shot finds them parting on the beach, presumably after a summer spent together). During the rest of the movie, one would expect them braving the barriers between them, but that pretty much isn't shown either. There are a couple of minor quarrels between them (Danny is afraid to admit his affection to Sandy when surrounded by sarcastic pals; however, very shortly, he apologizes, and all is forgiven), but this is definitely not your usual "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" type of story.

Frankly speaking, Grease is not much of a story at all - a couple of conflicts are not enough to propel the plot forward, and those conflicts are minor as well. For example, some (not much) screen time is devoted to Danny's leather-wearing, fast-car-driving, Elvis-haired pals fighting another group of leather-wearing, fast-car-driving, Elvis-haired guys, who are bad because - let me think - because, I guess, all of them are chewing gum and none of them is played by John Travolta. This subplot crops up sporadically and is resolved almost off-handedly, which is, actually, true in the case of all subplots.

No, the force that drives the movie forward is something completely different. Grease is a musical, and it's not a classic-story-with- songs-added-later type of musical, where the songs are important but not essential. It is an outright, conceived-as-such, owning-the-birthright, gotta-sing-it-or-else type of musical. Song 'n' dance numbers are frequent, eye-grabbing, not highly memorable, but very energetic (perhaps too much so; I would like to hear a couple of slower ones, like "Hopelessly Devoted To You" without the underlying bass beat).

These days, no one makes movie musicals; it seems that the audience can't swallow characters suddenly bursting into song. The only exceptions, of course, are animated musicals where, quite likely, the overall artificiality of what's happening onscreen helps to suspend the disbelief to such a degree that it doesn't really matter that sometime, yes, some singing's got to be done.

And this, possibly, is the best explanation of the enduring popularity of Grease: multiple levels of make-believe turning this movie into a pop-culture icon, something that is so removed from any kind of reality that it has to be analyzed solely on its own terms. Let me count the ways. First, it's a movie. Next, it's a musical. Then, the time it depicts can hardly be called the time of natural behavior (just witness the tight leather outfits and ridiculous greased hairdos). Plus, the actors are clearly much older than their characters. Also, the movie is done 20 years after the fact, making it more of a homage to the good old times (1950s). Now, it's re-released, making it a homage to the time when it first came out (1970s). To compound the issue, quite a few scenes cause the sudden recognition as the source of latter cultural and cinematic quotations (yes, this is why Vincent Vega, Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction, goes into the 1950s-themed restaurant and orders a burger and a cherry coke) - and the layers of cultural reference build up and hang onto other like multiply-hyphenated words in this review.

But I have to admit that, on its own terms, Grease works very well, as well as any good pop song. It's got rhythm. It's about love. It's easy on the eyes and ears. It's all in major key. There are just a few serious notes (all of them, without exception, provided by one and only truly great performance - Stockard Channing as promiscuously tough Rizzo, the leader of Pink Ladies), all of which resolve into the same major chords. In this way, I suppose, Grease is truly a classic - a movie for those who can't stand classical music, but would gladly listen for hours to an oldies radio station, where the most important lyrics are "ramalama-dingdong" and the word "Elvis" rhymes solely with "pelvis."