|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 24 September 2002|
Even though they have a lot to answer for, the ‘50s did give us the birth of rock ‘n’ roll music. They also inspired (albeit did not directly parent) “Grease,” the 1978 movie musical based on a stage hit that parodies the earlier era while incorporating elements of the year the film was made – for starters, the title track, written specifically for the movie by the BeeGees, is pure ‘70s. The movie is so beloved in many quarters that to gripe about it seems like complaining about a national institution (which, for many people, it is). If “Happy Days” was your favorite TV show, if you loved not just Elvis’ music but his movies, if you wholeheartedly can enjoy what is referred to as “wholesome” (well, mostly wholesome – teen sex rears its head and still seems innocuous here), this may be one of your favorite movies. If not – well, then, you may still appreciate parts of the movie while wishing that other segments would hurry along.
“Grease” chronicles the senior year in the lives of students at the fictional Rydell High. Danny Zuko (John Travolta), coolest of the cool, is thunderstruck when his ultra-innocent summer fling Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) turns out to be newly-enrolled rather than returning to Australia as she thought she would. Can Danny overcome his fears of what his friends will think to date a girl he has to respect? Can Sandy deal with Danny’s approach/avoid tactics and will she ever fit in with Rydell’s fast crowd? Can Rydell’s fastest bad girl Rizzo (Stockard Channing) find love with Danny’s best friend Kenickie? Can Danny and Kenickie beat their nasty rivals in a drag race? Will everyone express pretty much everything that occurs to them in song?
There are some flashes of genuine inspiration in “Grease,” starting with the casting. Travolta and Newton-John are the calculated epitome of bubble-gum pop romance in ‘70s terms – whether or not they give you the warm fuzzies, they are a definitive pairing for the decade the movie was made. Travolta’s Danny is so sincerely self-delighted that if you can open up to the happy egotism of it all, it’s a kick, while Newton-John radiates innocence that serves the material without seeming actually addled (trickier than it sounds).
Sometimes Patricia Birch’s choreography does something brilliant, too. In the Chapter 16 song (one of several written specifically for the film) “You’re the One That I Want,” Danny and Sandy’s sung-out-loud lust and form-fitting costumes are juxtaposed with dance moves that have them skipping hand in hand like a couple of happy schoolkids, so that childlike joy and grown-up desire co-exist rather than contradict one another.
Big dance numbers in Chapters 10 and 11 are engaging, although director Randal Kleiser tends to move his camera far less than most musical (or even non-musical) helmers customarily do. On the plus side, we get to see the dancers’ feet, something too often omitted in onscreen numbers, but on the minus side, it creates a slightly stodgy feeling and occasionally results in images that are just plain awkward, with dancers’ arms and even their heads shooting out of frame. In a fantasy section of Chapter 7’s “Greased Lightning” number, a character floats up and away. The camera doesn’t follow and it takes awhile for him to ascend, so we have time to contemplate the fact that there are a pair of legs steadily – but not comically or dramatically – disappearing into the top of the shot.
“Grease” was of course made before the invention of 5.1 sound, and there’s no evident attempt to do much beyond the usual with the 5.1 Surround mix used here. There are some good, environment-setting handclaps in Chapters 10 and 11 during the dance contest, and some surprisingly persuasive effects like clattering hubcaps during a drag race in Chapter 15. On quite a few songs, most notably on ballads like Chapter 14’s “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” sung by Channing with likable wisdom and openness, the vocals begin steadily in the center and then the music kicks in through the mains (with loyal back-up in the rears) just a hair too much, so that the lyrics sink slightly into the tune. It’s by no means uncomfortable, and it’s a more than credible mix for a soundtrack from 1978, but it’s not ideal by today’s standards, either.
There are a few actually bad sound moments, the worst being congestion building to a screech when all the girls start talking at once in a slumber party scene in Chapter 5 and another moment in the same chapter when Kenickie’s yell from outside the window seems rough and muffled.
Print quality is good overall (there are one or two white flaws detectable in Chapter 6), with solid color reproduction. Extras on the disc include a documentary, made in 1998 to commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary, full of behind-the-scenes footage and upbeat interviews with producer Allan Carr, director Kleiser and all the major cast members, sure to appeal to all devoted “Grease” fans.
As DVD releases go, “Grease” is a respectable rendering of a film made before the advent of major home theatre audio technology. It is a good disc to own if this is a movie you love or even have affection for – but whether or not “Grease” is your thing, this is not the DVD to use for checking out how your system handles rock ‘n’ roll movie musicals.