It’s got a groove, it’s got a meaning
Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion
Grease is the way we are feeling
George Lucas was not only responsible for rewriting the rules for the blockbuster in the 1970s, he also revived a nostalgic view of the American fifties teenager. Before STAR WARS (1977) he had a box-office hit with AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film set in 1962 (the ‘sixties’ didn’t begin until ’63). Along with Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) it revived a sense of nostalgia for the baby-boomer generation which culminated with the popular television series Happy Days and GREASE.
Along with STAR WARS, this record-breaking musical was ubiquitous as I was growing up in the 70s and (possibly) was as much as an obsession. I didn’t have any plastic toys, but I did ruin a denim jacket by writing ‘T-Birds’ on the back of it in biro. There was something about the style of Danny Zuko that I found very appealing. John Travolta and Oliver Newton John dominated the charts with Summer Lovin’ for weeks and weeks, while other hits such as Sandy and You’re The One That I Want were in the Top 10 at the same time. The un-broken run on the number one slot was usurped by The Boom Town Rats. On Top of The Pops, Bob Geldof marked the occasion by tearing a John Travolta poster from Look-in Magazine (the Junior TV Times), before tearing into The Rat Trap, their homage (rip off) of the E-Street sound. They tapped into Springsteen’s fifties-throw back themes of teenage rebellion, souped-up cars and chasin’ factory girls. The 1950s seemed to be everywhere.
Travolta was un-asailable at the time thanks to the success of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977). The Bee-Gee’s soundtrack album beat GREASE into second place as the number one selling record for the year. I was not allowed the album because it cost too much. I had a Woolworth’s PICKWICK version on cassette featuring a band calling themselves ‘The Grease Monkeys’. When I was with my friend Simon, we would occasionally put our Storm Trooper figures away and listen carefully to the lyrics trying to spot the swear-words and work out which bits were meant to be rude. We were nine and were in love with Olivia Newton John.
The musical started life in Chicago, set in the fictional Rydall High School in the dog-days of Summer when a group of seniors are returning after Summer vacation. While at the beach, Danny met Sandy and they had a chaste courtship and become hopelessly devoted. Danny assumed that she was heading back to Australia, so he is surprised to see her at school. He’s the king of cool at school, so he shuns her in front of his gang. She’s a square and bad for his self image. Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s original musical was diluted for Broadway and the film as it was a more hard-hitting depiction of gang violence, teenage rebellion, class consciousness and teenage pregnancy. It has the style and wit of WESTSIDE STORY (1961) but never seems ‘stagey’ – even the set-pieces like Grease Lightening seem cinematic in its approach, setting the model for the burgeoning music video format. The chart success of the songs was related to the TV-ready clips, it helped the box-office too as it remains the highest grossing Film Musical ever.
It’s the songs that stand out and there is an eternal quality to them. Now my kids love the film too and this summer I’ve had to watch it on a loop so I’ve been trying to understand why it has such an enduring appeal. It succeeds in creating a world that could only exist in film. In the post-punk 70s there was something appealing about Sandy’s transformation from the conformist to the teenage rebel (in more ways than one) that reveals a time when being a rebel didn’t seem so scary and transgressive.
That said, my kids just love the songs, I just hope they don’t take a biro to their jackets.