These days, they'd probably be on the table doing it.


Hopelessly Devoted

On its 20th anniversary,
recalls a time when cynicism
wasn't the entertainment norm.

by Coury Turczyn


It's June of 1971 and a couple of playwrights are about to launch a new production at a small, experimental theater in Chicago. Right now, the world is a mess–Vietnam is still raging, Nixon is still lying, race relations are still burning. Out of this morass of conflict comes a defining artistic statement that will live for generations, one that expresses the yearnings of an entire era. What is this bright flame of drama meant to ignite the world? What music does it offer to accompany The Revolution?

"Summer fling, don't mean a thing–but oh those summer nights!"

Grease, a musical tribute to the adolescent pleasures of the ’50s, signaled a death knell to hippiedom even more final than Iggy Pop or Nixon's pardon. Who would have thought that the psychedelic freak nation would be rolled over by bobby socks and poodle dresses? Everything the love-in generation was rebelling against–the repressive ’50s in its entirety–was now being glorified in song and dance. After its initial success, Grease soon debuted in New York, and then about five years later became a movie. In the meantime, George Lucas' American Graffiti was becoming the most profitable film ever made and Happy Days was popularizing the term "Sit on it!" You can only imagine the sense of betrayal felt by diehard hippies–after all their work fomenting social upheaval, America only wanted to go to a sock hop.

Now, 20 years later, Grease is back and America seems once again preoccupied with its gentle nostalgia. But the reasons for this longing are subtly different. Back in the ’70s, the nation clung to ’50s nostalgia as a way to recall a seemingly more simple time when there weren't nearly as many street riots. Now we look to Grease to satisfy our longing for ’70s nostalgia–a seemingly more simple time when there weren't nearly as many viral diseases, holes in the ozone, or presidential bimbos. Just as the ’50s did for the previous generation, the ’70s have become our touchstone for societal innocence (even if there's nothing innocent about any decade).

And what better movie than Grease to recall that lost era of sweet youth? It's got everything: Decadent producer and legendary Hollywood partier Allan Carr (the guy who brought Can't Stop the Music to the silver screen!), terrifically bland Aussie pop singer Olivia Newton-John ("I Honestly Love You"), future sit-com stars like Jeff Conaway (Taxi) and Dinah Manoff (Soap), those purveyors of psuedo-’50s rock Sha Na Na (anybody remember their variety show? I do!), and–of course–Mr. ’70s Superstar himself, John Travolta. These figures alone make Grease a monument to ’70s entertainment values. But what makes Grease worth re-releasing 20 years on–and why it's a near-classic movie musical–is the simple joy of its songs and its sincere performances. They haven't dated much, and those that have only bring a few knowing chuckles rather than derision.

The story–as most of the human population is aware–follows a school year at Rydell High in which greaser Danny (Travolta) and straight-arrow Sandy (Newton-John) fall in and out of love. Meanwhile, their colorful pals have their own sub-plots, with (among others) tough girl Rizzo (Stockard Channing) possibly getting knocked up and wannabe-racer Kenickie (Conaway) fixing up his hot rod for a big race. Along the way, characters burst into song and dance numbers like "Beauty School Dropout," "Stranded at the Drive-In," and "Greased Lightning." (I'd like to see somebody sell a story like that today in a Hollywood pitch session.) All of them are performed with a giddy enthusiasm that's genuinely infectious.

Travolta never looked better, radiating his trademark charisma, yet to be jaded or defeated by the industry. Grease was shot before the release of Saturday Night Fever, so he was mostly known as just Vinnie from Welcome Back Kotter ("Up your nose with a rubber hose!"). But he's perfect for the role, exhibiting a sleek, masculine, neighborhood guy look that's softened by his sensitive eyes and million-dollar smile–sort of like Marlon Brando-meets-Montgomery Clift. As Danny, he's just right–simultaneously tough-looking yet a softy inside. And he can swivel his hips with the best of them (though the raised finger disco stance does look a bit silly). Knowing what's ahead of Travolta–amazing success, incredible failure, the stunning comeback–only makes you appreciate his performance even more; here's where a great Hollywood career begins. (Too bad about the Scientology.)

Nostalgia can be a trap, offering a selective look at ourselves that isn't a true reflection. Right now, as the millennium counts down, we're wallowing in it, as if recalling all our old glories before stepping off into something new. And to be sure, Grease isn't very accurate in its historical recollection–but it is when it comes to our sense of youth. There is not an ounce of cynicism or bad spirit in Grease–and maybe that's what we long for most.


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