Oh Olivia Newton-John. I heard she died and the first thing I wanted to know was “What did Travolta say?” It’s rare that an onscreen pairing in American film is so strong that even when the real person dies, your first thought is of their onscreen partner. So let’s go back and look at that movie which had such an impact and think about why that impact happened.
When my sister and I were little, we only watched musicals. And our little friends were always saying to us “have you seen Grease?” No, we hadn’t. Because we didn’t like it. I don’t know if my sister saw part of it, or we started it and stopped it, or what, but somehow we knew it wasn’t our kind of musical in many ways.
We liked Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Sonja Henie, all kinds of musicals from the 1930s through the 1950s. These weren’t “special” musicals, they were just fun light movies that happened to have music in them. And then we moved on to the Beach Party movies and similar which were the same, fun light movies with pop music. What we didn’t like was the “heavy” musicals. The ones that were Special Events. You can feel the difference right from the start, this isn’t an entertainer it’s a Thinker. So, we didn’t watch Cabaret, or Sound of Music, or Fiddler on the Roof, or any of those Big Big Movies. And Grease was one of those Big Big Movies.
I finally saw Grease straight through sometime in high school and I didn’t love it. But over time, I’ve come to appreciate what it was doing more and more and understand why it stands out and is still so important to folks decades later. It’s not a fun high school movie (that would be the Beach Party movies), it’s about class and identity and how we get slotted into particular roles and can’t figure out how to break out of them. It’s set in the 1950s high school not because of nostalgia, but because it’s the setting most structured into class layers.
On the surface, this is a straight forward story. High school bad boy and high school good girl fall in love and struggle to find middle ground. But what it’s really about is that there is no “bad boy” and no “good girl”, everyone is both things or has the ability to be both things. On the surface, this is a story about the “good girl” turning herself into a “bad girl” in order to please her boyfriend. That ending, when watched in isolation, looks like a yucky “I’ll do whatever you want to make you love me” moment. But if you see the whole film, it’s not that so much as an acknowledgement that high school is over and none of these roles matter any more.
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Sandy and Danny met on the beach over summer vacation and fell in love. But on the first day of school, things are awkward as he is a cool greaser dude and she is a proper prim good girl. Sandy struggles to fit in, goes to a sleepover with the “pink ladies”, the girl greasers, but is teased. She goes to a drive in with Danny and leaves when he tries to make out too much. Danny tries to win her over by joining sports and becoming a “good” boy. Meanwhile, one of the Pink Ladies drops out to join beautician school and another has a pregnancy scare. In the finale of everything, Danny has to win a drag race while Sandy watches, and then at graduation the Pink Lady who dropped out returns to high school and graduates, the other one isn’t pregnant after all, and Sandy asks for help to get a make-over into being a “Greaser” herself. She reveals her look to Danny and they are joyously reunited.
The simple storyline is “good girl turned bad girl”. But it is so much more than that! It’s about class and gender and sexual norms and all kinds of things. It starts from a summer romance on purpose, summer and beach is a place beyond social roles, beyond clothing or hair or any of that dumb stuff. But then that simple pure relationship has to struggle to survive within a world of artificial barriers. That’s what all the storylines are about. Danny is as trapped as Sandy, he has to be the “bad boy” even though he is smart and could succeed in school/life if he allowed himself. Frenchie leaves school for beauty school and feels trapped in that decision, she can’t admit she failed and needs to go back to regular high school. Rizzo can’t admit she is scared of being pregnant and loves her boyfriend and needs his support. Everything is magically fixed at the end because leaving high school is a magic fix for most of these issues. You can have a relationship without being watched and judged all the time, you can try your hardest to succeed honestly without being “uncool”. And you can be a girl who is confident and wants her man without needing to be sweet and innocent.
This film is set at a purposefully exact point in American history. It’s 1958, the sexual revolution, feminism, anti-war movement, all of that is coming. But right now, American culture is in a state of hidden revolution. Mass media, government, everything in society is saying “America is perfect, we won WWII, we are more rich and successful than ever before”. But in high school, the greasers can’t talk to the lettermen and the lettermen can’t talk to the greasers. And if you make one wrong choice, you are cut off from Perfect Shining American Society forever and ever. These are the sort of problems that made the social upheaval of the 60s happen.
This film is a watered down version of an original rough and ready production. Which is from my hometown! I should have known that actually, because my mother went to high school a few years after this and her school was divided into Greasers and non-greasers. It’s a very working class midwest semi-urban community specific divide. The ethnic divide in the story is Polish/Italian, both working class immigrant groups in Chicago but they Don’t Mix. The first production was at Kingston Mines, a Chicago blues club where the good music doesn’t start until after 1am. And then it got smoothed out and organized and made it to a regular theater. And then became a national show, everything really general and relatable. Before, finally, this movie. Which once again changed everything, smoothed it down, evened it out, and made the heroine Australian in order to use Olivia Newton-John.
And yet that bite is still there. That’s why my sister and I didn’t like it when we were little. It’s not a light happy fun musical. It’s a gritty greasey musical. If you only look at the light happy fun stuff, it doesn’t even make sense, and it’s kind of offensive (why does Sandy have to give in and become a bad girl?). But if you look at the whole thing, acknowledge the bumps and problems and wonder why they exist, it has something important to say. And Sandy and Danny, the sweet good girl and the tough bad boy who aren’t really that good or that bad, are a couple that can last forever.