Tuesday 13 March 2012

Movie Review: Grease (1978)

One of the rare Hollywood moments when all the stars align to create a classic, Grease is the perfect musical. With a soundtrack that struck the cultural bulls-eye, two stars easing into stardom, a love story that combined purity with sass, and a director who captured the teen spirit, Grease effortlessly made the leap from memorable to magical.

As the summer of 1958 draws to a close, local teen Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Australian tourist Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) have to end their summer romance as she prepares to return to Australia. At Rydell High School, Danny is a greaser and leads his band of friends known as the T-Birds, including Kenickie (Jeff Conaway). Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) is his female counterpart, and heads the group known as the Pink Ladies.

Danny is surprised when Sandy shows up as the new kid in the school, after her family changed plans. Their relationship is threatened when Danny's cool persona is undermined by the presence of the excessively sweet Sandy. Rizzo has eyes for Danny, and seduces Kenickie in an attempt to make Danny jealous. Gradually Danny and Sandy grow close again, but their friendship is disrupted when an old flame teams up with Danny to compete at a nationally televised dance event. With Danny pre-occupied with preparations for a drag race against the obnoxious Scorpions, Rizzo is shocked by an unexpected surprise and Sandy has to find a way to get Danny's permanent attention.

The Grease soundtrack captures the joyfully horny spirit of the movie with a mix consisting of highly kinetic raunchiness (Summer Nights; Greased Lightning; You're The One That I Want), ballads (Hopelessly Devoted To You; Sandy; There Are Worse Things That I Could Do), and nonsensical whimsy (Beauty School Drop Out; Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee). The album is among the all-time best selling soundtracks, and most of the songs became radio hits, propelling Grease from a movie to a cultural milestone.

The stars quickly overcome the pothole of being much older than their characters, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John making a most appealing on-screen couple. Fresh from his breakout success in Saturday Night Fever, Travolta demonstrates a flair for comedy, cheesy drama, and humorously creaky vocals, and simply shines in the dance numbers. In Greased Lightning and the school dance competition sequence, Travolta dominates with his flowing movement, graceful feet, and masculine power.

Newton-John made the leap from emerging singer to international superstar with her performance as Sandy. Not as comfortable as an actress, this worked in her favour as the hesitant Sandy, but it was her transformation into the uninhibited, leather-clad, frizzy-haired, over-sexed aggressor in the final scene that is most remembered. Notwithstanding the barely concealed message (you need to become a bit of a slut to get the guy), Newton-John translated that image into a successful career mixing positive empowerment with brazen sexuality.

The supporting cast members do their part to keep the comedy and music hopping, with Stockard Channing (Rizzo), Jeff Conaway (Kenickie) and Didi Conn (Frenchy) most prominent. The minor roles are stocked with character actors from the golden age of Hollywood.

Director Randal Kleiser achieves seamless success in adapting the musical stage show to the screen, and brilliantly magnifies the impact of the stars and the music with wonderfully fluid camera work. The dancers are mostly seen in full-length shots, there is always something happening in every corner of the screen, and most delightfully, dancing couples effortlessly float into and out of the gliding frame, injecting continuous energy into the grand performance scenes.

Grease is a perfectly lubricated movie, all the parts moving in smooth synchronicity to deliver a timeless and magnetic experience.

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