43 Years On, Grease Is Still The Ultimate Movie For Those Summer Nights
Just like there are certain movies that ignite a fairy light tingle of festive nostalgia, there are others that look, sound and feel like a splash of salty seawater on a burning summer’s day.
My own personal list of summer favourites includes gems such as Mamma Mia!, Dirty Dancing and, of course, Jaws. But there is one film in particular that makes my heart spin like a fizzy, dizzy August fairground ride.
Although the story unfolds over the course of an entire school year, Grease (1978) is the cinematic equivalent of reconnecting with old friends on a blazing hot summer evening, bookended by two of the greatest summer karaoke bangers of all time.
Grease, released on this day 43 years ago, is a movie best seen at a drive-in or open-air cinema, a film that demands handfuls of warm popcorn, rattling ice and tongues tinged ice lolly blue. Of course, you can always recreate this effect at home with the right snacks.
Four decades on, and Grease endures as a timeless classic which is near impossible to watch from beginning to end without belting out a few numbers. I for one have never succeeded, and honestly hope I never do.
Greased Lightning remains a particular earworm of mine, and I only need to be about three drinks deep before I’m willing to screech out a truly appalling rendition of Hopelessly Devoted To You.
Upon my first watch as a pre-teen, I found Grease to be one of the most exhilarating films I’d ever seen. I thought Rizzo was the coolest, and very much wanted to be friends with Frenchie. All of the above remains true, as does my desire for Sandy’s post-makeover perm to make a comeback.
Of course, my own lasting affection for Grease, the highest-grossing live-action musical up until 2012, is shared all over the world, filtered down through generations of youngsters who secretly believe they would have been the best dancer at St. Bernadette’s.
There’s something about the cinematography that feels like a summer afternoon daydream, each frame glowing like an idealised version of youth. The colours pop, the sun glistens like fast-food wrappers, and every scene has a slightly hazy, unreal quality.
It’s perhaps no wonder that so many people buy into the intriguing – and Travolta approved – theory that the whole film is simply the piercingly bright, colourful spiralling of Sandy’s post-drowning coma fantasy.
Grease brings to mind the sort of perfect days from your youth that you will never quite remember accurately, but will hit you at certain moments years later. The sight of a certain booth in a certain café perhaps bringing to mind an idealized friendship or budding, long crystallised, romance.
Although I have never in my life been to a malt shop, a few mental gymnastics easily allows me to replace the delightfully pastel Frosty Palace with the chippies and kebab shops of my own Mancunian youth.
The enduring love for this film is, after all, as much about the universal themes, the human hopes, anxieties and aches that allow us to keep relating to the characters in certain ways, despite angelic visitations and flying cars.
For the small few who may be unfamiliar with the plot, Grease kicks off in an idyllic beach setting, with teens Sandy Olsen (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny Zuko (John Travolta) caught up in a holiday romance which initially seems destined to end once Sandy returns to Australia.
However, famously, there was a mysteriously unspecified ‘change of plan,’ with Sandy and her family upping sticks to Southern California. After the seemingly impromptu move, she’s enrolled in the exact same high school as Danny, completely unaware her summer crush is within singing distance.
No doubt this plot point will have sparked many daydreams over the years among teens heading off on their snog-less, bucket-and-spade family hols. The stuff of young adult novels and wishful diary entries given the all-singing, all-dancing star treatment.
However, their initial joy at being reunited is soon tempered by the dynamics of life in a 1950s era US high school, with self-conscious Danny keen to keep up his tough-guy image in front of his decidedly less romantic friends.
Prim Sandy on the other hand is thrown into classic fish out of water territory when she is taken under the wing of the Pink Ladies, a girl gang led by rebellious Rizzo (a stand-out turn from Stockard Channing).
Both Danny and Sandy in turn try to shift their identities to fit in with the other, ultimately culminating in Sandy undergoing a full-blown Greaser makeover and rocking up in those tight leather pants.
Of course, there are many parts of Grease which feel a bit questionable upon rewatching, not least because you shouldn’t ever drastically change who you are or what you look like to impress the person you fancy.
Some aspects of the movie, such as Danny’s forceful behaviour at the drive-thru and lyrics such as ‘did she put up a fight,’ have quite rightly been brought into question in recent years, and no doubt any modern remake would – and absolutely should – take such criticism seriously.
But there’s so much about the film that remains fresh and vibrant to this day, despite the weighty helping of poodle skirt nostalgia. After all, fashions may have changed, but summer is still very much a time for experimenting and reinventing yourself anew for exciting times ahead.
There’s also so much that is still relevant for youngsters of today, from Rizzo being cruelly slut-shamed during a pregnancy scare, to Frenchie struggling to figure out a suitable career path after her beauty school dreams fall short of reality.
This is a film that understands and celebrates this uncertain, uncooked period in your life; a time when you don’t know who you are and your style is one of the precious few means through which you can express yourself and your intentions.
Grease never patronizes or undermines the concerns of its protagonists, never dismisses the bonding rituals of sleepovers or the pain of early romantic rejection.
It may be huge and bombastic, but Grease beautifully captures all the overwhelming excitement and confusion of first love. It’s still absolutely the one that I want.
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