GREASE: 4K Blu-ray (Paramount, 1978) Paramount Home Video
Randal Kleiser’s Grease (1978) continues to find new legions of fans. That’s something I suppose, considering it is only a middling effort as a musical; albeit, with a killer score and the iconic star-making performance of John Travolta, still riding the crest of instant fame afforded him from the previous year’s Saturday Night Fever. Grease is, of course, the phenomenally successful film adaptation of the Broadway musical of the same name, herein trapped in a curious time warp, the mores and manners of the 1970’s melded to its halcyon-inducing bits of nostalgia for the fabulous fifties. Most of the original Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey score has survived the transition from stage to screen with a few new songs written expressly for the screen. Alas, unlike the idyllic world of, say, an Andy Hardy, the configuration here of muscle cars, malt shops and moonlit make-outs in the backseat at the drive-in just seem to retain an artifice untrue to its narrative time frame. Nostalgia for the fifties was big in ’78 thanks in part to an earlier kick start from George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Yet Grease doesn’t feel like the fifties; the actors – all of them – far too old to convince as teenagers. Lest we forget John Travolta was 24 in 1978; Olivia Newton-John – his senior at 30, and Annette Charles, as the raunchy/high-stepping Cha-Cha, also 30, but looking at least 10 years everyone else’s senior.
There is no doubt Grease solidified John Travolta’s fame as an international pop icon. It also brought spandex back in style and put Olivia Newton-John on U.S. pop charts – a love affair that was brief at best and all but killed off by her epic implosion in the musical misfire, Xanadu (1980). In retrospect, Grease moves like gangbusters with songs that are ‘electrifying’ and an energy that is…well, ‘greased lightnin’. Yet, in comparing the film to other musical entertainments of its vintage – or even musicals in general – one finds very little to recommend it as an exemplar of the genre. Bronte Woodard’s screenplay Ginsus the romance between Aussie export, Sandy Olson and her greaser boy toy, Danny Zucco into truncated vignettes and failed flagrante delictos, clumsily strung together and book-ended by songs. When Kleiser paints these ‘boy meets girl’ cardboard cutouts into a narrative corner (and frequently, he does) the movie simply breaks them into song to divert attention away from the fact there is virtually zero substance to his picture-making style. Like all Hollywood musicals gone past the expiration date of the studio system, having crumbled to dust by the mid-1960’s, Grease suffers from a total dearth of precisely the sorts of behind-the-scenes stock company each studio kept in its heyday that would have lent stardust magic to its puff pastry of studio-bound pastiche. Patricia Birch’s choreography amounts to little more ambitious than a lot of hip-swiveling and highly sexualized gyrations, some mindless chaotic flailing, and, as equally un-balletic leaps from the cast off the furniture and occasionally, moving vehicles (the much-lauded Hand Jive is not a dance, folks).
Grease is a revival – of sorts, tricked out in re-imagined costuming and a top-selling soundtrack. Alas, it all but embalms the fifties in a thick coat of 70’s fantastic plastic: a lot of sun, sex and slick to mask a one-note wonder. Unequivocally, Grease pleasantly passes the time. Nevertheless, it remains a vacuous and rather simplistic distillation of that buttoned-down and poodle-skirted epoch, immortalized in the annals of real – rather than ‘reel’ history as the age of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Bobby Rydell. That Grease has endured for so long is a testament, although I am not entirely certain as to what…good timing? Bad taste? Or our collective pop culture amnesia, chronically to set aside the past in favor of the proverbial ‘next best thing’ that, more oft’ than not, turns out to be half as good? Grease lacks the finesse of a studio-bound movie musical. In its absence, we get John Travolta – clearly, one of the emerging stars of his generation who went on to do ‘other/better’ movies. What Travolta has cannot be taught: a presence that clicks with audiences. We will stop short of labeling it ‘animal magnetism’ because its hypnotic sway has proven to falter – on occasion, horrendously – when the mixture of elements surrounding him are not quite so. A real star can rise above his material. But Travolta (and I am venturing out on a limb here) is not a great actor. He possesses the chutzpah of a showman and the inherent sexiness of the blue-eyed boy next door no self-respecting girl could introduce to her mother. He relies heavily on body language and his undeniable good looks as subterfuge in lieu of any genuine acting ability. This too can go a long way. Cute sells. Sex too. Sex more, actually. And its ether has carried Travolta to heights that few of his limited range are able to scale and remain on top for so long.
It may appear as though I am needlessly bashing both a beloved cultural touchstone and a ‘star’ who – let’s face it – was gutsy enough to put on a fat woman’s suit for Hairspray (2007). However (in)sincerely then, I admit to two things: first, like so many growing up in the 1970’s, I too fell under the spell of Grease’s song n’ dance silliness, and second, in the years since moving beyond the naïveté of my own youth, I really cannot quantify the reasons why Grease – despite its myriad of artistic flaws and faux pas - has nevertheless stayed with me as a fondly recollected memory. It remains a diverting pop-u-tainment – yes. But it never comes across as anything better than a frenetic explosion of crass commercialism where the seeming ‘life and death’ crises of oversexed teenagers are played strictly as camp. As big a star as Travolta became in the seventies because of this movie, were Grease truly a musical ‘from’ the 1950’s, his talents would register as merely good enough to play the guy on the side, in support of the real/reel ‘name above the title’. The most interesting performance in the picture is, in fact, given by Stockard Channing (then, a sage 34 yrs.), as the devilish and sexually-liberated Rizzo. She suffers a pregnancy scare and evolves – almost magically – into the sadder but wiser young tart of this over-the-hill Hollywoodized hoodlum sect.
What remains renewably infectious about Grease then, is the energetic – if utterly naïve – way Kleiser and his cast sell its less-than-perfect claptrap to the audience with far less sincerity for the material. It is therefore one of Kleiser’s great inspirations to have populated the backdrop of his movie with a cavalcade of genuine icons from the 1950’s, old enough to remember them fondly and remind us of their glory, including Eve ‘Our Miss Brooks’ Arden as Principal McGee, Sid Caesar (Coach Calhoun), Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes (as hip-swiveler/radio jock, Vince Fontaine), Joan Blondell (malt shop waitress, Vi) and, as the fantasy ‘Teen Angel’ called upon by the most ‘mixed up non-delinquent’ and beauty school dropout, Frenchie (Didi Conn), none other than beach blanket fav, Frankie Avalon. Kleiser also gets a lot of mileage out of Sha Na Na; in retrospect, the as bizarrely trend-setting rock n’ roll ensemble whose act simultaneously revived and parodied the fab fifties in gaudy gold lamé, leather jackets, pomaded pompadours and greased up ducktail hairdos. A different time, I suppose, but Sha Na Na was wildly popular then, even hosting their own weekly variety show from 1977 to 1981. In Grease they are simply ‘the band’ – augmenting the ‘dance off’ competition with reworked renditions of such pop standards as ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Hound Dog’.
Plot wise: it’s senior year at ‘rockin’ Rydell High School. Our story zeros in on Sandy Olsson (Newton-John) a goody-two-shoes bobbysoxer from Australia who is destined to be corrupted by greaser, Danny Zucco (Travolta). From the wrong side of the tracks, but with his heart in the right place, Danny is forced into an impossible confrontation with Sandy by his ex, Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Currently the girlfriend of Danny’s best pal, Kenickie (Jeff Conway), Rizzo knows Danny is genuinely in love with Sandy. She also acknowledges that our purebred Sandy is ‘hopeless devoted’ to Danny. To save face with his buddies, Danny alienates Sandy at a pep rally. Good for his image. Bad for his love life. Utterly humiliated, Sandy goes off with jock, Tom Chisum (a blond Lorenzo Lamas whose ‘brains are in his biceps’), leaving Danny to do just about anything he can to get her back. Eventually, true love prevails. After all, this is a musical. But the road to happiness is not without its potholes.
After Rydell is selected to star in a live televised ‘dance off’ competition hosted by dreamy D.J. Vince Fontaine, Rizzo plots yet again to wreck Danny’s chances with Sandy, reintroducing him to another former flame – Cha-Cha. She has brought her tough-as-nails boyfriend, Leo (Dennis Stewart) in for a piece of the action. It’s something of an ego-crushing heartbreak for Sandy to discover our Danny gets around like an alley cat in heat. Sensing his previous relationship with Cha-Cha may not be entirely finished (Cha-Cha steals Danny away from Sandy during the dance off and helps him win the competition), Sandy leaves the auditorium in tears. A short while later, she succumbs to the allure of a transformation from the girls, becoming precisely the sort of leather and spandex-clad vixen that appeals to Danny’s less than honorable intentions. At the year-end high school carnival, Danny gets reintroduced to this new ‘and improved’ Sandy, who sells her stiletto and sexpot image with great success. He better shape-up, however, because this Sandy needs a real man to keep her satisfied. I suppose we can forgive Sandy, sacrificing wholesome morals to turn herself inside out for a guy. After all, her head has yet to be twisted by sixties bra-burning feminism.
Grease may not be a stellar musical. Most assuredly, it bears no resemblance to high art. But it does effectively pass the time with a lot of inhuman noise set to a toe-tapping rhythm. Today, it is heralded as a fondly recalled time capsule more than a bona fide film classic. This is probably the best its enduring legacy can – or rather, should attain. That newer generations, not around in 1978, continue to re-discover it is more the mystery here. Grease has been endlessly reincarnated and lampooned as everything from an episode of TV’s popular series, Glee (2009-15) to a complete revival on the small screen in 2016, likely owed its Broadway roots more than this movie. And yet, it is the iconography of the ’78 picture that keeps coming back; the ‘one that we want’ over and over again, like the faint odor of sweaty gym socks left to ferment in the backseat of the family car on a sweltering hot summer afternoon after football practice. So, Grease is the word, is the word, is word…and likely to persist for as long as youth continues to catch the novelty full force and unearth something perennially appealing about it. Precisely what this intangible quality is remains open for discussion. I am certain I have neither the time nor the inclination to satisfy such a query.
While Grease’s artistic integrity is up for grabs, no one ought to be disputing the remastered Grease in 4K. First up, thanks to a contractual dispute between Coke, Paramount Pictures and Pepsi, virtually all previous home video releases depicting scenes in the malt shop had their product placement digitally obscured; the result, a few extremely clumsy looking ‘mattes’ that created disturbing and thoroughly fuzzy halos around actors walking back and forth in front of them. Apparently, producer Allan Carr orchestrated a deal with Pepsi for product placement in the picture, only to learn Kleiser had already shot these scenes with vintage Coca-Cola ads plastered all over the set. It proved a double-edged sword, as no one had actually cleared the rights with Coke Inc. first. While the brouhaha was settled out of court, even as the picture hit theaters, Coke denied Paramount permission to reissue Grease on home video unless all product placement for their brand was removed. Until this 4K release, all reissues of Grease, both theatrical on home video, from VHS to LaserDisc to DVD, and finally, Blu-ray, suffered this indignation.
Well, prepare to be astonished, as they used to say, because for Grease’s 40th anniversary, Paramount has accessed an original camera negative, restored most of the Coke ads and altered only a handful. The crystal clarity of Grease in 4K will surely startle and impress. Viewing Grease in 4K is like experiencing the movie for the very first time – or perhaps, more astutely put – like never before. Without embellishment of any kind, this UHD transfer is a revelation. Colors are so rich and vibrant they make Paramount’s previous Blu-ray look chalky, wan and careworn. Contrast is equally impressive with deep, solid blacks. Film grain is velvety smooth and HDR has been sparingly applied. There really is no comparing Grease in any other home video format to this 4K release. It will blow your mind. The other epiphany…the DTS 5.1 audio derived, for the very first time, from restored original magnetic 70mm roadshow elements. Again, it’s like hearing Grease as never before; dialogue, ultra-crisp, the score pulsating with subtleties in its orchestral accompaniment absent all these years. Extras are all ported over from the previous ‘Rockin’ Rydell’ Blu-ray and are included only on the standard Blu-ray disc included with this 4K release. The extras include both vintage and featurettes produced for Grease’s 20th Anniversary, plus 11 deleted scenes, and interviews with cast and crew, and, a very brief ‘making of’ featurette. Bottom line: Grease is gorgeous in 4K. It’s still a flawed film, wildly entertaining to most and moderately disappointing for others like myself. While I continue to be amazed by its popularity there is no denying that in 4K, Grease will likely remain ‘the word’ for a very long time.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)