Hopelessly Devoted to 'Grease'
Why, 25 years later, audiences keep coming back for more
This Saturday, for the second year in a row, Project Transitions and aGLIFF will host a Sing-Along Grease at the Paramount Theatre. The sing-along series -- part karaoke and part costume bash -- has previously presented The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz, but only Grease received an encore. "It was such a hit," says Justin Clanton, special-events coordinator for Project Transitions. "There were 5- and 6-year-olds dressed up, drag queens dressed up, people who were 60 years old."
All musicals have kitsch appeal, but Grease is a double dip of nostalgia -- appealing for those who remember the Fifties, when the film is set, and those who remember the late Seventies, when the film was released. It is the most successful movie musical ever, and like all cult phenomena, Grease is a film you either love or avoid like a Star Trek convention. Is it a good movie? Probably not. It's campy and frivolous, with flying cars and carnival rides and 30-year-old high school students. Its message of teenage conformity is downright disturbing. Even populist critic Roger Ebert called the movie "plastic." And yet, for those of us who love the film -- and we are legion -- Grease is the word. I can still quote dialogue. Wanna see? "A hickey from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card." And I can get giddy talking about certain scenes -- ooh, ooh, ooh, like the part where Danny reunites with Sandy, and Danny gets so excited his voice breaks ("SAN-deee!"), but then he tries to play it off all cool: "You know, rockin' and a-rollin' and what not?" I am hopelessly devoted to this film. I was born to hand jive, baby, and that's not even a euphemism.
So what happened to me? Why am I like this? I sent out a survey to about 20 of my friends, wondering if they suffered, too. I asked them simple questions: Who is your favorite character? (Rizzo and Danny.) What is your favorite musical number? ("Summer Nights.") Who is the most underappreciated character? (Frenchy.) But I also asked them how old they were when they saw Grease -- invariably young -- and what they thought of it. "I thought it was the greatest thing in the world," wrote Jenny Balovich. "There was one summer when I watched it about every other day."
What became clear was that Grease had been imprinted upon us -- like Catholic guilt or childhood trauma. Because we were little and pathetically impressionable, Grease sunk into us like a second language, with its catchy songs and promise of a teen life more vivid and tuneful than our own suburban youth. It sculpted our expectations of high school, of romance, of life. "Grease was one of the many movies and television programs I watched in my early childhood that lead me to truly believe that self-obsession, melodrama, and kissing were as essential as oxygen or gasoline," wrote David Garza. "And I also thought everybody would be perfectly sexy and possess the ability to dance the mashed potato once I grew up and left town."
Fictitious though they were, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were like our own Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, our J.Lo and Ben. "Olivia Newton-John was the embodiment of perfect ideal beauty," wrote Jodi Egerton. "I think that's the kind of thing that gets in your head when you're young and sticks with you." Greg Beets describes his favorite scene from the beginning of the film: "The T-Birds call out for Danny, and he turns around with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. That always struck me as undeniably cool, and it's a miracle I didn't pick up a pack-a-day habit myself based on that scene alone."
After reading all the responses, I wasn't so sure we wanted to watch the film as much as we wanted to be in the film. We wanted that world of dance contests and rumbles and hoochie makeovers. And that's why the Sing-Along Grease is so brilliant. "It's total escapism," Justin Clanton explained. "Everyone lets their hair down. It's contagious. You really feel like you're in the movie." Tell me about it, stud.
Project Transitions and the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival presents Sing-Along Grease at the Paramount Theatre (713 N. Congress) this Saturday, July 26, at 8pm. For more info, visit www.agliff.org or call 454-8646.