Grease, one of the great, most loved, and successful musical film adaptations of all time, celebrates its 35 anniversary today.
Brimming with memorable set pieces, song numbers, consummate dancing, a smart script, and of course, the lead performance by John Travolta, fresh off his superstar status in Saturday Night Fever and arguably elevating that star status even to a higher plane with the success of this film, Grease still remains a benchmark in cinema, a rare striking an iron red hot of a meshing of casting, production, and creation. It’s pretty much ingrained in the American fabric in this current age we live in, and even if there is a slight polarization regarding the film, there’s no denying its power. Like Saturday Night Fever, Grease remains almost like two films which are recognized by the viewing public: the pushing the envelope original PG version which has some mild but albeit adult themes in it, and the watered down, readily accessible for the ABC Family, Disney Channel, VH1 Classic mindset and demographic and thus, the real intention of many of its characters are slightly askew and the original story remains in a slight flux. But regardless of that, it’s still the feel good charm and energy that Grease radiates which made it a success in the cinema and beyond, on the lighted stages of live productions, which now transcend to being performed around the world.
Grease came at a time during a 1970s that had almost shaken off completely the attitudes of the 1960s, and which saw the 1980s right around the corner. It also came on the heels when films started to eschew the intensity most of them sported during the beginning of the decade, and simply was a feel good popcorn film that had a happy ending and mostly with firm and secure resolutions for most of its main characters, something that became a norm for blockbuster films, a type of narrative which exists to this very day. Whereas a prior theatrical musical like West Side Story ended tragically, Grease ended where one felt like they could bounce out of the theater. It left a joyful attitude firmly entrenched within the viewer upon seeing it, something which was only the icing on the cake after experiencing songs and sequences which showed the 1950s as a hedonistic, pleasant decade, not unlike Happy Days, which was one of the most popular programs on television during the time Grease was originally released in 1978 to theaters and also a program which showed the 1950s as an idyllic, free time for all.
Grease encapsulates all the 50s had to offer in its imaginative opening, in which the credits roll by animated imagery of visual iconography of the 1950s, bouncing to the memorable title song, which has a production sound akin to the biggest disco hits of the 1970s and sung by Frankie Valli, a pop singer originally weaned in the 1960s, and keeps it there for those glorious three-plus minutes. Only the fashions then give one the hint and glimpse they are in the 1950s after that. In a strange way, and to make the comparison, if Saturday Night Fever now remains a time capsule of the 1970s, Grease, even though it was set in the 1950s, remains a strange time capsule of how the 1970s would portray the nostalgia of the 1950s, like so many other productions did during that decade, mainly on television, (the aforementioned) Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley (and MASH to a lesser extent) to name a few.
Along with Travolta, the film’s other stars, Olivia Newton-John (another success story of the 1970s), the late Jeff Conaway, revered character actress Stockard Channing, and the unknown to most young fans even then and especially nowadays cameo appearances by Eve Arden, comic legend Sid Caesar, Edd Byrnes (who once was a pin up star with a program called 77 Sunset Strip in the 1960s), and Frankie Avalon, keep Grease still a fun ride, if not just purely for the music alone, which spawned number one hits on the charts and a soundtrack album which coupled with the prior year’s Saturday Night Fever release, became perfect musical bookends to the late 1970s. “Summer Loving,” “Greased Lightning,” “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and many more, are etched in the collective consciousness of many Americans and later generations of the film, and are still performed in productions raising from high school level adaptations to big, glitzy, Vegas style showcases. Whereas most people have all but forgotten the original Broadway 1972 stage production, which was a little racier and contained mostly adult themes, the 1978 film version of Grease remains to many one of the great latter day theatrical musicals of all time. Even most people who completely abhor the movie musical, scoff at the inanity of characters breaking into songs at moment’s notice, and condemn its style and visual arrangements seem to have put Grease in a higher league in the genre, and have kept it high on its mantle.
The power Grease is supplying, it’s electrifying. It’s the word, it’s got groove, it’s got meaning. Grease is the time, it’s the place, it’s the motion, Grease is the way we are feeling. Like the rock and roll they speak of in the film, Grease will never die. It’s systematic, hyrdromatic, ultramatic, and chang, chang, changity chang shoo bop, that’s the way it should be. Like the very last words of the film are sung, which remains a perfect metaphor for the film and its always loyal audience, “We’ll Always Be Together.” Happy 35th Grease.