Grease (1978) 40th Anniversary Review

Rereleased to celebrate its 40th anniversary, “Grease” takes us to a nostalgia-fuelled retro-dystopia where middle-aged adults are forced to attend high school and endure the trials and tribulations of adolescent life, no doubt the forfeit of some Faustian pact or “Lost”-style purgatorial atonement. After being drowned by a freak wave during a weekend getaway to the coast to restore the lost spark to their relationship, married thirty-somethings Danny and Sandy wake to find themselves back in high school where they must learn to love each other once again through a series of peppy, rock ‘n’ roll pastiche musical numbers and embracing each other’s true natures.

Of course not! This is the sunny, wholesomely ribald musical of 50s nostalgia and one of the greatest movie musicals of all time, back on the big screen where it belongs. A musical for the whole family (although certain lines and lyrics will sail over the heads of younger T-birds and Pink Ladies), it’s universal enough to be inoffensive to most yet just naughty enough to have the tiniest frisson of  illicit thrill. The director and cast bring everything to the screen, investing every moment of the musical with an adorable energy that more than compensates for their conspicuous anachronisticism.

“Grease” is one of my earliest cinematic memories, and to be honest it’s probably a toss-up between it and “The Rescuers” for which film I saw first in a cinema. I do remember coming out of the cinema with my Mum and going with her straight to Boots to buy the soundtrack LP, a gorgeous fold-out vinyl album long since lost to a spring-clean or format upgrade of long ago. I remember the movies’ incredible power to revive itself, like some kind of leather-jacketed, bequiffed revenant every time it was shown on TV (we’re way back in the early days of home video here so TV was still the place to catch classic movies) and dominate the playground for months thereafter. Obviously I was going to leap at the chance to share this personal cultural touchstone with the Cragglings (11 and 5) on the big screen and, of course, both absolutely loved it.

Regardless of the rumours and revelations of some of its cast members now, there’s an almost timeless innocence to its saucy sha-na-na-nanigans, an infectiousness to its catchy and eminently sing-a-long-able songs and a warm familiarity to every word, note and beat of the script which is carved into memory with all the reverence and exactitude accorded to the likes of “Star Wars”. Sure, to me, now, someone a few years beyond even the film’s generous casting limits, some of the movie’s clunkier moments are more obvious, especially on the big screen. The Scorpion Gang – a curious hybrid of fifties street punk and Village People-style leathermen (they like their beer cold, their TV loud and their convertibles FAH-LAMING!!!!!) – never really amount to anything and to this day, after innumerable rewatches, I still cannot fathom why Danny’s friends help abduct Sandy from the dance floor, leaving Danny to finish off his hand jive in a near-Oedipal pas de deux with cougar-before-her-time Cha-Cha DiGregorio.

It doesn’t really matter though, because the dancing is worth it in the end. Easily taken for granted, Travolta’s effortless dancing underlines his prodigious talent in how hard the rest of the cast have to work just to keep up with him. The tables turn when it comes to singing of course, although Travolta never comes near Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!” levels of tortured desperation, he’s got his work cut out matching the candy-sweet tones of Newton-John’s Sandy. Stockard Channing and Jeff Conaway round out a superb lead cast and while the supporting characters are good value, its by packing the faculty of Rydell High with veteran performers like Sid Caeser, Eve Arden and Joan Blondell that Kleiser pulls the ace out of his sleeve, their world-weary cynicism puncturing the bubble-gum fantasy just enough to keep things for descending from sugar rush to sugar coma.

It has to be said the 4K 40th Anniversary restoration is merciless in exposing director Randal Kleiser’s liberal use of varying degrees of soft focus to flatter his cast. Kleiser packs the screen with everything, throwing in the kitsch and sinking the depth of field to hide the wrinkles and, despite how bizarre it all should be, it works. The irresistibly dazzling charisma of Travolta and Newton-John (never replicated in their subsequent team-ups), the classic song and dance numbers of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey (with a little help from John Farrar and Barry Gibb) and the capturing of a very specific Fifties vibe ensure that the film and its questionable moral of how a girl can get the boy of her dreams if only she’s willing to dress slutty enough will be around for generations to come.