“The original high school musical is back!” crows the tagline on the poster for Grease Sing-A-Long (Paramount), a rerelease of the 1978 musical with karaoke-style subtitles. The jab at Disney’s High School Musical series—and the grab for its audience—are as good-natured as they are blatant. In a summer of sequels and remakes and all manner of pop-culture pillage, you have to give Paramount respect: Rather than trying to “reboot”Grease for the new millennium, the company has simply dusted off the top-grossing musical of all time, slapped some words under the songs, and sent it back out on the market to reap whatever profit it can.
Paramount’s product may be retro, but its marketing strategy is social-media savvy. The Grease rerelease is currently set to open in fewer than 20 cities across the country, but Paramount is encouraging potential viewers to promote the movie on Twitter and visit the Eventful Web site to make the case for it coming to their town. Grassroots Grease for a new generation: It’s either brilliant or utterly misbegotten, and I’m honestly not sure which. Will today’s prepubescent audiences—fine, I’ll say it: ” ‘tweens”—still be as transfixed as the 12-year-old me was by John Travolta’s swiveling hips, by Barry Gibb’s disco groove in the title song, by Olivia Newton-John’s painful struggle to release her inner slut?
Thirty-two years after its original release, Grease has multiple layers of nostalgia to strip away in order to win over a generation that (like every new generation) is mercilessly un-nostalgic. It’s a musical about the mythical 1950s as filtered through the idealizing lens of the 1970s, a decade that’s now been mythologized and idealized in its turn. If Travolta’s character, Danny Zuko, were 18 when the movie took place, in the mid-’50s, he’d be in his early 70s now. A person born the day the movie opened could now conceivably have a child old enough to attend the singalong version.
Still, after viewing Grease on the big screen for the first time in at least—oh, dear God—30 years, I have to say, I’m betting on a mildly successful resurrection. Musically, the movie holds up amazingly well. Songs like the he said/she said duet “Summer Nights” and the falsetto ballad “Sandy” are crystallized gems of pop treacle. The success of the singalong gimmick was tough to judge at a relatively sedate preview screening (though you had best believe this critic did her civic duty with a faux Newton-John vibrato). But the score is so infectious, it’s hard to believe it won’t get people singing along, even if (or especially because) the subtitles are accompanied with corny “Pop-Up Video“-style graphics.
The colors shine, the circle skirts swing, and the blessedly inconsequential story bounces along at an impressive clip between big production numbers. Travolta’s performance is a treasure: funny and sexy and seemingly effortless. He walks as if he’s dancing and dances as if he’s walking. The movie’s camp sensibility matches up perfectly with his cock-of-the-walk self-enjoyment.
What surprised me most are the movie’s sexual politics, which seen with a generation of remove are astonishingly freewheeling and raunchy. Though the movie is only rated PG-13, Grease essentially functions as a PSA in favor of unwholesome living. Its teen protagonists smoke, drink while driving, drag-race in seemingly seatbelt-less convertibles, boast (both girls and boys) about their broad-ranging sexual conquests, and shrug off the minor inconvenience of a broken condom. This alone may endear the movie to young audiences, if not to their parents.
In a way that I was only dimly aware of as a 7th-grader choreographing P.E. dance routines to “Greased Lightning” (with its still-shocking lyrics about “pussy wagons” and “chicks” who’ll “cream”), Grease is a post-sexual-revolution fairytale about laying claim to your own horniness. The movie doesn’t even punish its bad girl, Rizzo (Stockard Channing), with the consequences of her unintended pregnancy—in a modern teen movie, she’d be forced to have the baby, Juno-style. And when the virginal Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) goes over to the bad side at the end, dressing in stretch pants and putting out cigarettes with her red heels as she asserts her need for “a man who can keep [her] satisfied,” the movie clearly wants us to understand the transformation as a liberation. As an unsophisticated 12-year-old, I was terrified by the implications of Sandy’s makeover. As a parent of a future 12-year-old, I am terrified once more. But I can see how, for kids on the brink of that transformation, Grease’s affirmation of the power of sex could remain something worth singing along to.
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