In the summer of 1978, I fell in love. I was 15 years old, and went to the movies one evening to see the adaptation of, at that time, the longest-running Broadway musical in history, 'Grease.' I was not a fan of John Travolta, nor did I care for '50s-style jukebox tunes, the greaser culture, or the kind of infantile antics typified by Lenny and Squiggy on 'Laverne & Shirley.' But none of that mattered when the lights went down and the face of an angel lit up the screen. Blonde and wholesome, with liquid eyes and a cover-girl grin, she instantly captivated me, and from the moment she said the word "Danny" in that inimitable honey-toned Australian voice, I was hopelessly devoted to Olivia Newton-John.
And if this fresh-faced vision of purity inspired such palpable emotion as she plaintively sang in a full-length, long-sleeved white cotton nightgown, imagine how my burgeoning libido reacted at the end of the film when she slunk into view wearing stitched-on black leather pants, platform heels, an off-the-shoulder top, and a seductive pout. Zowie! No one in my high school ever underwent such a stunning transformation or, much to my chagrin, said "Tell me about it, stud" to me. (I'm still waiting, in fact.) In 'Grease,' Olivia is every teenage boy's fantasy – virgin one minute, slut the next. The message might not be a healthy one to send to impressionable girls ("better tramp yourself up, sweetie, if you want to snag a man"), but, hey, it worked for me!
Nostalgia is what 'Grease' is all about, and whether this infectious, kitschy musical makes you recall an adolescent crush, cruising around with your buddies, sleepovers, sock hops, proms, or drive-ins, it brings back the warm glow – and a lot of the endearing awkwardness – of youth. Randal Kleiser's film has its diehard fans (I am one) and vociferous detractors (of which there are hordes), but there's no denying its universal appeal and sturdy staying power. Who among us hasn't seen 'Grease' multiple times? It's part of our culture, a chunk of Americana, like apple pie and Fourth of July fireworks.
'Grease' may be dated, but that's part of its charm, and though in many ways it may remind us more of '70s culture than anything in the '50s or '60s, it still captures the high-spirited frivolity and downright goofiness of high school, as well as the binding ties of friendship. And such elements never go out of style. Yes, the juvenile slapstick becomes grating, the actors are way too old for their parts, and the less-than-stellar production values lend the movie a cheap look, but who cares? This is 'Grease,' and it's the songs and the romance and the cast and Olivia in those black leather pants that keep those of us who love it coming back.
A plot recap hardly seems necessary, but here goes. Danny Zuko (Travolta) and Aussie transplant Sandy Olson (Newton-John) enjoy a sweet summer romance, but instead of returning to the land Down Under as planned, Sandy stays in the States and turns up at Rydell High, where – surprise! – she runs into Danny once again. Yet to her horror, the kind, considerate, sensitive boy she fell in love with at the beach dons a far different image at school. As leader of the delinquent greaser gang, the T-Birds, Danny is bad-boy cool personified, and can't betray his gushy feelings for strait-laced Sandy if he hopes to maintain his lofty stature and the respect of his peers. So, he blows her off, and spends the rest of the film desperately trying to win her back. Meanwhile, the Pink Ladies, the female counterpart of the T-Birds, befriend Sandy, while their ringleader, the tough, randy Rizzo (Stockard Channing), can't resist the cocky allure of Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), Danny's best friend.
All the romantic entanglements get sorted out in the end, but along the way, there's plenty of lowbrow comedy, colorful cameo characters, and a hit-laden score that features such familiar tunes as Summer Nights, We Go Together, Greased Lightning, Beauty School Dropout, and There Are Worse Things I Could Do (all from the Broadway original), as well as the top 40 staples, Hopelessly Devoted to You and You're the One That I Want (written expressly for the film by Newton-John's musical svengali, John Farrar). Though I can do without the movie's crass humor and the Three Stooges-like mugging of some of the T-Birds, I still get a big kick out of the musical numbers, which exude a kinetic energy that keeps them surprisingly fresh more than 30 years later.
The "geriatric" cast (27 is about the average age of the actors portraying the Rydell High seniors) possesses enough bubbly personality to almost make us forget how old they really are, and everyone involved seems to be having a ball. Though not a trained actress, Newton-John brings an abundance of sincerity to Sandy that masks her inexperience, while Travolta possesses some impressive pipes and a cadre of slick dance moves. Together, they make a dynamite pair, and with this one film became an immortal Hollywood team. Channing, who at 34 was almost twice the age of Rizzo, infuses the ballsy broad with plenty of sass, as well as a touching tenderness that makes her the movie's most dimensional character. Conaway, Didi Conn, Dinah Manoff, and the other "teens" also assert themselves well, and it's always a treat for fans of classic film and TV to see acerbic Eve Arden ("If you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter"), wiseguy Sid Caesar, gold-hearted Joan Blondell, feisty Alice Ghostley ("Haul ass, kid!"), and delightfully dopey Dody Goodman in brief but lively roles.
Lots of movie musicals are better than 'Grease,' but few inspire such fanatical devotion. And it's easy to see why. Great songs, spiffy choreography, winning performances, lots of laughs, and a sprinkling of heart distinguish this ebullient film. (Did I mention Olivia in her black leather pants?) Love it or hate it, it's an undeniable classic.
There are almost as many home video editions of 'Grease' as there are books in the Harry Potter series, but the transfers have always been problematic. Even the latest DVD version (itself a remaster and cleverly housed in a black leather jacket) left a lot to be desired. Well, 'Grease' fans, I'm happy to report the pining for perfection is over. From the moment the menus pop up, it's immediately apparent this 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode from Paramount is head and shoulders above any previous video rendering. 'Grease' has never looked anywhere near this good. As many times as I've seen this film (and I've lost count), the quality of this transfer is so high, as soon as I finished watching it, all I wanted to do was start it up all over again.
Even the opening Paramount logo, which was always littered with dirt and scratches, is now clean, and there's nary a speck or nick anywhere else on this pristine print. The lovely grain structure remains intact, lending the image warmth and texture, but never detracts from the vibrant clarity, gorgeously saturated color, or solid depth that oozes from almost every frame. Some very slight digital doctoring has been employed to enhance the typically drab '70s look, but it's tough to detect, and couldn't keep me from being completely bowled over by the rejuvenated look and feel of this timeworn film. Even in low-lit scenes, noise is absent, and no banding or pixilation disrupts wider exterior shots.
The Rydell red is amazingly lush and bold, but other hues – such as Danny's pink shirt in Born to Hand Jive, Frenchie's pink/lavender hair during Beauty School Dropout, and the green accents on clothing and foliage – are equally striking. While several shots look a bit faded, they're punched up enough to nicely blend into the transfer's fabric. Blacks are very dense and rich, but well-modulated contrast keeps them from overpowering nocturnal scenes, and though fleshtones err slightly on the orange side, they never look artificial.
Clarity is superb. The picture never quite achieves 3-D levels, but close-ups show off fine details well, and clothing accents are distinct. The split-screen finale of Summer Nights has never looked as well defined, and the depth achieved during Sandy, when Travolta sings in front of an animated ad on the drive-in screen, is stunning. This top-flight effort from Paramount is truly a revelation, and will surely dazzle and delight the film's faithful.
I was really excited to hear 'Grease' in lossless audio, and Paramount's surprisingly immersive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track met almost all my lofty expectations. Crisp and clean, with marvelous depth, presence, and fidelity, the full-bodied sound beautifully enriches the 'Grease' experience. From waves crashing against the shoreline to the chirping of birds, the track provides a true surround feel whenever possible. Lots of ambiance pervades the high school dance scene, and whenever any sort of music kicks in – be it one of the soundtrack tunes, background scoring, or the marching band during the pep rally – the sound seamlessly swirls about the room, enveloping us in the action.
'Grease,' however, is all about the songs, and the lossless track's excellent dynamic range and purity of tone make them sound better than ever. A slight volume boost adds some punch to the numbers without necessitating any level adjustments, and vocals are well prioritized, so the lyrics are always understandable. Smoothly integrated low-end frequencies lend the music nice heft, and some potent bursts of bass – especially whenever flames shoot out of the Scorpions' roadster – really grab attention. Front channel separation is also quite good, and though at first I thought dialogue might be a little soft, a bit of tinkering achieved an acceptable balance.
Never does 'Grease' sound like a 30-year-old film, and Paramount deserves props for fashioning such a vital, involving mix. The power it's supplyin' is indeed electrifyin'.
All the extras from the 2006 "Rockin' Rydell Edition" DVD have been ported over, and remain in standard definition. This is a fairly comprehensive supplement package, but the material is presented in a cheesy style that diminishes its weight. A more in-depth documentary featuring up-to-date interviews would have been a welcome addition, but possibly will have to wait for the next 'Grease' reissue – and you know there'll be one!
So for those dyed-in-the-wool 'Grease' fans who already have three or four video editions lying around the house, the question is: Is this high-def edition worth yet another dip? And the answer is... You better believe it! Recycled extras aside, the exceptional 1080p picture and immersive lossless audio recharge this time-honored musical, lending it the look and feel of a brand new movie. The performances, songs, and high-spirited dance numbers come alive like never before, and make this – at least for now – the definitive version of a beloved film. 'Grease' isn't just the word on Blu-ray disc; it's da bomb!
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