Appellate Judge Dave Ryan has got chills; they're multiplyin'.
Our review of Grease, published September 24th, 2002, is also available.
"Gotta be goin' to that malt shop in the sky…"
For all the hullabaloo Paramount generated over their 25th anniversary release of Grease on DVD in 2002, the disc itself was pretty plain. (See our previous review, linked in the sidebar.) Virtually no special features to speak of, and only a remixed Dolby 5.1 surround audio track as a selling point.
Now, one Olympiad later, as part of its "pseudo-clever name" series of catalog re-releases, Paramount has finally given Grease a decent extras package with its "Rockin' Rydell" edition. It took a while, but this is the disc that the 25th anniversary release should have been. Not perfect, but very commendable.
Facts of the Case
It's an age-old story: Boy Danny (John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever) meets girl Sandy (Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu); boy and girl fall for each other; girl is supposed to go back to Australia but instead winds up at boy's high school; boy disses girl to fit in with his peer group; girl decides she has to slut herself up to fit in with boy's world. You know the drill. (I believe this was also the plot of Titus Andronicus.)
Grease is one of the most enduring films of the 1970s, probably still as popular today as it was during its long and profitable run in 1978-79. For a variety of reasons, the film managed to capture lightning (greased lightning?) in a bottle. On paper, it seems like this concept would never work: a musical set in an idealized version of the fifties about a bunch of high school greasers and their love lives. Just what the Disco Era was looking for, right? Well…turns out it was what the Disco Era—and their kids, and their teenagers, and their parents—were looking for.
Grease started in 1972 as a successful Broadway show, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. The stage Grease was, at its core, a raunchy send-up of the traditional image of the fifties. Kids in the fifties, according to Grease, weren't the pure, clean, traditional kids seen in Leave It to Beaver or My Three Sons, or even the stylized rebels of the James Dean films; they were just as sex-crazed and awkward as the post-hippie generation of the 1970s (or, for that matter, today's kids). Grease was revisionist history wrapped in a doo-wop candy shell. More important (for its purposes), it had a fantastic period musical book (written by Jacobs and Casey, and arranged by Louis St. Louis of Smokey Joe's Cafe fame), chock-full of rockabilly, doo-wop, and just plain good ol' fifties pop. (Trivia note: The original stage Danny was none other than Barry Bostwick [The Rocky Horror Picture Show].) The success of Grease on Broadway and around the country with its touring troupes almost guaranteed a movie adaptation.
The film version of Grease was spearheaded by one of the great music impresarios, Australia's Robert Stigwood. Stigwood's main claim to fame was his management of two of the most successful acts of the 1970s: Eric Clapton and the Bee Gees. His company, the Robert Stigwood Organization, found great success with its RSO Records label; leveraging his musical assets into the film world was a logical move. Films could star his acts and feature soundtracks chock-full of new hits, selling millions of albums—or so the idea went. Stigwood's first attempt at this sort of synergistic cross-pollination—Ken Russell's film version of Tommy—was relatively successful, giving some good exposure to Eric Clapton. His second attempt, though, changed the worlds of cinema and music.
In 1976, Stigwood was producing a film chronicling the intersection of Brooklyn kids and the disco subculture in mid-'70s New York. Naturally, he turned to his clients the Bee Gees for music, since they had recently reinvented their sound, once profoundly Beatlesque, into a more dance-oriented Philadelphia R&B sound. The brothers Gibb contributed three tracks—"Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," and "You Should Be Dancing"—to the soundtrack for the film, the name of which was changed from Saturday Night to Saturday Night Fever in order to echo the Bee Gees song. Thirty million albums later, the film had redefined the concept of the movie soundtrack, the Bee Gees were the biggest band on the face of the Earth, and a young sitcom actor named John Travolta was a superstar.
Stigwood's follow-up to Saturday Night Fever was Grease, coproduced with talent manager Alan Carr, who had created the Fever marketing campaign. (He also took an "adapted by" credit on Grease.) Travolta, given his background as Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter (and his experience in the stage production of Grease), was the perfect Danny Zuko. Adding to the project's attractiveness to Travolta was the presence of young director Randal Kleiser (Big Top Pee-wee, The Blue Lagoon), who had struck up a friendship with Travolta while directing him in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. (Side note: If you have never seen Boy in the Plastic Bubble, you do not know what you're missing. It is, along with Viva Knievel!, one of the greatest hysterically bad films of all time, made all the funnier when you know that Travolta was actually dating his "mother" in the film, Diana Hyland. But I digress.) Jeff Conaway (Taxi), who had played Danny on Broadway and had tentatively been cast in that role in the film, was pushed aside and given the role of Kenickie. (But not before they took Kenickie's one song—"Greased Lightning"—and gave it to Danny instead. Alas, poor Conaway…) One of Carr's clients, character actor Stockard Channing (The West Wing)—34 years old at the time—was cast as Betty Rizzo, the bad-girl leader of the Pink Ladies. But who would play all-American girl Sandy Dumbrowski?
Stigwood and Carr wanted someone with the same star power as Travolta to play opposite him. One of their first choices was pop singer Olivia Newton-John, the Brit-turned-Aussie who had had a string of Top 20 hits during the first half of the seventies. It is easy to see what caught Carr and Stigwood's attention—Newton-John exuded buckets of safe, clean, and chaste sexuality. From appearances, she was the second coming of Sandra Dee. Although she was offered the job straight out, she asked to do a screen test first—this would be her first film role, and she wanted to make sure she would fit the role. Her test with Travolta went well, and she accepted the role.
Unfortunately, Newton-John wasn't exactly Polish, and wasn't exactly American. So all-American girl Sandy Dumbrowski from Chicago became Sandy Olsson from Australia—the first of many changes made to the stage play in its transition to the screen. Before all was said and done, several musical numbers were dropped entirely, some ("Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" and "We Go Together," for example) were moved to different spots in the narrative, and three completely new songs ("Hopelessly Devoted to You," "Sandy," and "You're the One That I Want") were added to the score. (As noted above, "Greased Lightning" was also changed from a Kenickie song to a Danny song.) "Hopelessly Devoted," written by Newton-John's primary songwriter, John Farrar, was added mainly to fulfill a a clause in her contract: She had to have a single-worthy solo song at some point in the film.
The net result of the changes and modifications is that the film version of Grease is more idealized and tame than the stage play. That makes a lot of business sense—a straight film of the stage play likely would have received an R rating for "strong sexual content," eliminating a large chunk of the film's potential audience. But it does change the play's message, and not insubstantially. Grease the movie embraces our stereotyped nostalgic view of the fifties, instead of indicting it. It's a fluffy, nostalgic look at a time that has passed (and may never have existed to begin with).
Whatever the message you take from it, Grease just plain works. Musicals typically are difficult to adapt to the screen for a variety of reasons. As with all stage-based works, musicals are designed to be staged in a very limited space. If you film the action in a limited space, though, it will seem claustrophobic and wrong. The challenge a director faces is preserving the music and dancing while still keeping the camera active and moving. Grease just gets it right. The stage roots of the big musical numbers are obvious—they're clearly choreographed for the stage—but they never feel staged. Grease leads with the best number in the entire film, and the most enduring song from the score, "Summer Nights." In the stage production, the song is sung with the girls on one side of the stage, the boys on the other. Here, director Kleiser has the girls in the lunchroom, and the boys on the bleachers at the football field. The choreography is also more open, because the spaces involved are larger. But it's still a boys vs. girls song, just like the play. Nothing is lost, but the number is made more active and filmic. The two leads, Travolta and Newton-John, really nail the song—it's always great to see Travolta dance, and Newton-John just screams cuteness. Combine that with the song itself, up-tempo and fun to an extreme, and you've got a winning showstopper. After that number, we're hooked.
Adding to the "homage and not satire" feel are the numerous call-outs to the fifties throughout the film. The supporting cast is littered with stars from fifties (and early sixties) film and television: Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows), Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks), Joan Blondell (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?), Alice Ghostley (To Kill A Mockingbird), and Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip) all have significant roles. There are two children of fifties stars in the cast, too: Dinah Manoff (Empty Nest), the daughter of Lee Grant, and Lorenzo (son of Arlene Dahl and Fernando) Lamas. The school, Rydell High, is named for singer Bobby Rydell ("Volare"). The Barry Gibb–penned theme song is sung by Frankie Valli. Popular fifties revival group Sha Na Na (which had its own network variety show at the time) serves as the band at the sock hop. And of course, last but definitely not least, there's the original teen angel, Frankie Avalon. The music even references specific fifties/sixties classics: "Summer Nights" borrows a bass melody from the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" opens with the five-note melody from the beginning of "The Chipmunk Song."
For some reason, Grease's appeal crosses all boundaries: age, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and whatever else you can come up with. Quite simply, the vast majority of people who watch Grease enjoy it. It has been successful, and arguably has reached the kind of cult status that musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Sound of Music, and The Wizard of Oz have reached, because it's just plain entertaining. Travolta is at the height of his success; Newton-John is gorgeous; the music rocks, and Frankie Avalon brings the house down with "Beauty School Dropout." The songs are catchy and easy to sing along with. ("Summer Nights" has particularly become a karaoke staple.) It makes you feel good, because there's just nothing bad going on here. It's a safe, warm, and fuzzy look back at the innocent fifties. Ironically, it's exactly the sort of balloon that the Broadway Grease was trying to pop…but hey, you can always see the stage show, too.
Paramount has shored up the technical quality of the transfer for this edition, including doing some digital editing to remove some of the more egregious visual blemishes caused by the split-focus diopter lenses used in some scenes. The film is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio, with strong color and good contrast. It's a high-quality transfer, worthy of a special edition. Sound is provided in Dolby surround and in the original stereo—but more on that later.
Unlike the original release, the Rockin' Rydell Edition provides a hefty supply of extras. The feature commentary by director Kleiser and choreographer Pat Birch is very informative and entertaining. (Although if you want a really good look behind the scenes of Grease, I'd recommend seeking out the article the Los Angeles Times Magazine published for the film's 25th anniversary. I tried to find a link to it for this review, but failed.) Birch did the choreography for the stage production as well, giving her not only a unique perspective on the film, but also allowing us to learn a great deal about the differences between the two. The standard "remembering" featurette is included—unlike many of these featurettes, the stars of the film actually participated in this one. It's enjoyable, but most of the information contained in it is communicated (with more detail) by Kleiser in the commentary. A substantial featurette contains footage of the party thrown by Paramount for the film's 25th anniversary DVD release. There are some interviews of note, but the highlight is the on-stage performance of three songs by Newton-John, Travolta, and the cast. They're still pretty good, believe it or not. (And yes, Travolta can still hit the note at the end of "Summer Nights.") A pair of interviews from "Grease Day"—the party thrown at the film's 1978 opening—provide some contemporaneous commentary, but they are fairly brief and largely unilluminating. Two short featurettes cover the film's choreography, and roadsters like the ones that race in the film. Finally, there are the omnipresent trailer/photo gallery extras. It's a solid package of extras. Sure, a commentary by, say, Travolta, Newton-John, Channing, and Conaway would have pushed it into "outstanding" territory—but it's solid and more than worthwhile.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the big selling points of this edition (based on the packaging) is the "Rydell Sing-Along," a karaoke jukebox of the Grease musical numbers. Sounds great, right? Well, unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be well implemented technically. The feature did not work at all on my regular DVD player (a mid-range Sony model); the video stuttered and no lyrics appeared at all. I had to use two different PC DVD software programs before one (Nero) ran the feature smoothly. When it works, it works well, with color-coded lyric highlights for songs with multiple singers, such as "Summer Nights." But given that 67% of my DVD players won't play it, I have to give it poor marks.
The 5.1 surround mix (which appeared on the previous release) is a mixed bag as well. Some of the songs sound too separated, with imbalanced levels for the foreground and background singers. The effect was most obvious on "You're the One That I Want," where it made Travolta's and Newton-John's vocal parts sound as if they had been overdubbed after the fact. It's not a horrible track by any means, but the stereo mix just sounds better for the music. That's a shame.
Although Grease is toned down substantially from the stage play's raunch, it's still pretty raunchy if you pay close attention. Thankfully, empirical evidence indicates that most of the raunch flies completely over the heads of children. (Or maybe I was just clueless…er, never mind.) As an adult, it's a bit shocking to realize that the line in the first verse of "Greased Lightning" is "You know that ain't no shit / we'll be getting lots of tit." But you can't really figure out what the hell Travolta is singing anyhow, so no harm done, I guess. In any event, bear in mind that there are plenty of adult themes in Grease that may not be appropriate for kids. Also, the film's core message—good girl needs to turn slutty to get her man—is pretty darn terrible. Yet kids love this film, even though they really don't get what's going on the way adults do. Parents, it's your call.
Grease is greater than the sum of its parts. It's a film that has no business being as supremely entertaining as it is. Guilty pleasure? Heck no. There's no guilt in enjoying something as fluffy and fun as Grease. Fire it up, sing along, and let your troubles drift away. And remember—if you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.
Grease is the word. Not guilty, you young rapscallions!
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