“Grease” always will be timeless, and for a good reason.
Now streaming on Netflix and HBO Max, the 1978 screen version of the hit stage musical unapologetically presents actors who clearly are well beyond their high-school years as … high-schoolers. The audience is in on the joke from the start, though, so the Randal Kleiser-directed picture’s campy undercurrent is a huge part of its appeal.
John Travolta was just coming off a gargantuan success with “Saturday Night Fever” when he went back to his pre-stardom roots with this project, which he had done in live theater with a touring company. As cooler-than-cool gang member Danny Zuko, he lets his guard down during a summer fling with the virtuous Sandy (depicted here as an overseas exchange student to accommodate Olivia Newton-John, a charmer in her first major film role).
Flash forward a bit, and Danny is stunned to find Sandy has transferred to be one of his fellow pupils at Rydell High — where he puts up a charade to try to keep others from discovering the softer side he showed with her. Naturally, she isn’t happy with his turn in attitude toward her, so she aligns with rough-around-the-edges Rizzo (Stockard Channing) and the other Pink Ladies to win him back.
Admittedly, this is not the deepest of plots, but where “Grease” really succeeds is in topping that with massive doses of star appeal and great music. Though many of the tunes come from the original version, “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” were added for the film, as was Frankie Valli’s title song (written by Barry Gibb). All were enormous hits on the charts, as was “Summer Nights,” from the original stage score.
Another cast notable is the late Jeff Conaway, who had understudied (and eventually starred in) the role of Danny on Broadway and appears here as pal Kenickie. Didi Conn and Dinah Manoff also stand out as couple of Pink Ladies, and owing to the nostalgic feel here is a parade of stars from earlier eras; Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Frankie Avalon and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes are among those who turn up in that vein.
Sequel-itis being what it is in Hollywood, a “Grease 2” was attempted several years later, but its most memorable aspect was that Michelle Pfeiffer largely stayed away from singing and dancing from then on. The original “Grease” is that kind of movie magic that happens rarely, where a legion of fans is willing to suspend disbelief and just go with what they see and hear. And not only is a new generation doing that, so are longtime fans who are happy to experience the film’s many joys again.