It opened on June 16, 1978: Grease
, the Paramount movie musical about one school year at fictional Rydell High, was a phenomenon from the start, taking in $12.7 million dollars domestically in its opening weekend (more than double its production costs) and going on to gross $380 million worldwide.
Danny: Oh, bite the weenie, Riz.
Rizzo: With relish.
30 years have passed since "Grease" debuted in theatres yet the film itself remains as fresh, relevant and relatable as ever: Whether a baby-boomer or a Millennial, in the halls of old Rydell, we are all 17 again. Based on the original musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, adapted by Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard and directed by Randal Kleiser, the beloved film manages to reflect that time - between adolescence and adulthood - that we all relate to.
How did one motion picture manage to capture a snapshot of time that is so familiar to so many? How did a large-scale sing-and-dance picture produced in the waning days of musical features captivate both men and women across every socio-economic level? Better still, how did it manage to achieve all of the above while being so damned entertaining?
Sandy: He was sort of special.
Rizzo: There ain't no such thing.
The opening of "Grease," two lovers on a beach about to be parted (seemingly) forever, is markedly incongruous in tone when compared with the next scene wherein a jukebox and animated versions of the film's characters pulsate to the toe-tapping title tune (written by Barry Gibb, sung by Franki Valli). We meet the T-Birds: Danny Zuko (John Travolta
), a greaser uncomfortable in his own skin and harboring a summer secret; Languid delinquent Kenickie (Jeff Conaway
) who has an unexpected soft spot; and the remaining "toughs", Doody (Barry Pearl) Sonny (Michael Tucci) and Putzie (Kelly Ward), who could be stand-ins for the Three Stooges.
The Pink Ladies, led by the unforgettable Rizzo (Stockard Channing
at her fast and cool best) are comprised of the juvenile Jan (Jamie Donnelly), Dinah Manoff as the stacked, man-hungry Marty ("Maraschino like the cherry") and aspiring career girl Frenchy (Didi Conn). Rounding out the cast are great turns by Sid Caesar
as Coach Calhoun, Eve Arden as Principal McGee and Edd Byrnes as the smarmy, preening DJ Vince Fontaine.
Frenchy: What do you guys think of Sandy? Do you think we can let her into the Pink Ladies?
Rizzo: Nah, she looks too pure to be pink!
At the core of "Grease" is a love story. Thanks to a convenient plot twist, Zuko's summer love, virtuous Australian Sandy (Olivia Newton John
) is both Frenchy's cousin and a recent Rydell transfer (what are the odds?). It's a leap of faith that is easy enough to make; the audience only cares about the eventual meeting of the two separated lovebirds. It's not long before the sly machinations of Rizzo bring the two face-to-face, but alas, the reunion is not the dream come true either had hoped for. The rollercoaster relationship that ensues, the assorted dramas of the secondary characters and the events that comprise one memorable senior year all form one of the most indelible plots - and soundtracks - in American cinematic history.
Danny: You can't just walk out of a drive-in!
Set against a backdrop of the late 50's, "Grease" pays loving homage to the culture of the era complete with dance-offs, drive-in movies, strip racing and rival greaser gangs (the T-Birds vs. The Scorpions). The film also doesn't shy away from the politics and controversies of the time: They constantly juxtapose "good girl" Sandy - choking on cigarettes, grimacing at the taste of wine, stricken by having her ears pierced - with "bad girl" Rizzo, who thinks nothing of shimmying out of her bedroom at night to engage in unprotected sex with Kenickie in the backseat of his car. Still, the film is generous to both, casting aside archaic notions of female sexuality and showing the complexity of both women. With a knowing wink, "Grease" reflects the actuality of what was happening in the 50's - the challenging of sexual mores. Just listen closely to a repetitive lyric in "Greased Light'nin": Yes, they are indeed referring to Kenickie's beat-up auto as a "pussy wagon!"
Kenickie: Relax... A hickie from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card, when you only care enough to send the very best!
Even better then a hickie from Kenickie, in 1979 the film was nominated for multiple Golden Globes and an Academy Award (for the original song, "Hopelessly Devoted to You"). Perhaps the best accolade "Grease" received is reflected in a public opinion that still endures today: The film won People's Choice Awards for both Favorite Musical Motion Picture and Favorite Overall Motion Picture.
Danny: [singing] I got chills / They're multiplyin' / And I'm losing control / Cause the power you're supplying / It's electrifyin'...
AFI may continue to give the likes of Citizen Kane
top spots on their annual Best Movies list, but how many people across the nation - even the world - know the dialogue of Orson Welles' classic as completely as the lyrics of "Summer Nights" or "You're The One That I Want?" The record-breaking soundtrack celebrated its 25th anniversary five years ago with a new deluxe edition release from Polydor records. Featuring remastered music with an additional disc of music, all the favorites are there: "Grease", "Hopelessly Devoted To You," "Greased Light'nin," "Beauty School Dropout," "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," "There are Worst Things I Could Do" and many others. On September 19, 2006, the film itself was re-released on DVD as the Rockin' Rydell Edition, which includes a black Rydell High T-Bird jacket cover or the Target-exclusive Pink Ladies cover.
Principal McGee: I hope that your years with us here at Rydell have prepared you for the challenges you face… But you will always have the glorious memories of Rydell High. Rydell forever.
"Grease" manages to be simultaneously frothy and optimistic while still conjuring memories of a time where persona and reputation were fragile and all-too-important, each misstep seemed magnified and every decision felt life altering. Thank Hollywood, it all turns out all right on celluloid: At the film's conclusion, amidst game-play, Ferris wheels and cotton candy, Rizzo ends up catching a break (and a proposal), school punching bag Eugene finally gets some respect and love triumphs for Zuko and Sandy, who fly off into the sunset - literally. Cheesy? Sure. Infectious? Definitely. 30 years may have passed, but the continued enjoyment of each generation shows us that somehow, because Grease itself is timeless, it eases the actual passage of time. "Chang chang Changitty chang shoobop. That's the way it should be. Wha oooh yeah!"
Sandy: Danny... is this the end?
Danny: Of course not - it's only the beginning.
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Story by Shannon Peace
Starpulse contributing writer