“Guilty pleasure” is a term with which I’ve lost sympathy. Over the years, I’ve come to suspect that if something gives you pleasure & doesn’t harm anybody else, you probably shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty about it.
Having said that, I can’t deny that I do have a handful of pleasures over which I feel guilty, or at least embarrassed. Most of these, you will probably be relieved to hear, I have no intention of sharing here, but there is one I’ll admit to: I like Grease.
By which I mean, I like the movie Grease. As in the musical with John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John. That Grease. Always have. Even The Wife, who loves musicals, shakes her head at my willingness to sit & watch this one.
So it was without her that I attended, & had a blast at, the screening of the new limited-release Sing-Along version of Grease, which has been selling out shows around the country, & which plays here in Phoenix at the AMC Esplanade through Saturday July 17. You can check out the trailer here.
Of course, lots of people liked this movie—it was one of the major hits of 1978. But even though I’m one of them, it’s always bugged me that I’ve enjoyed this fantasy of ‘50s high school life (I’ve always assumed that the title is a joke on the ‘60s musical Hair). It is, to begin with, shamelessly kitschy—when Travolta & ONJ's hot rod actually takes off & flies through the air in the final scene, director Randal Kleiser shows no more sign that he means this flourish ironically than does Cocteau when his lovers ascend to Heaven at the end of La Belle et le Bete.
But that’s not really what bothers me about my affinity for the picture—I like lots of kitsch. The songs are really catchy, too, & Kleiser & choreographer Patricia Birch shape numbers like “Summer Nights” & “Born to Hand Jive” excitingly. Grease is a deft, skillful piece of popular moviemaking, & my real sense of sheepishness about it comes from its sensibility: It’s a rapturous celebration social conformity, peer pressure, & the behavior of the sort of thuggish assholes that often made high school a shitty experience for me, & a far shittier one for the sorry souls even farther down the dork pecking order than I was.
Leather-jacketed hero Danny Zuko (Travolta) & his pals the T-Birds are presented as lovable lugs, but from the point view of, say, the unfortunate class nerd Eugene (Eddie Deezen) they'd doubtless seem very different. It’s true that while Grease glorifies swaggering alpha males, over the years it’s been co-opted by their victims—the drama-club dweebs, the gays, the Eugenes. But that doesn’t get me off the hook—I liked the movie even before it became the property of the Glee crowd.
I’ll also grant that slutty Rizzo (Stockard Channing) & her pals The Pink Ladies were far more to my taste than wholesome Sandy (ONJ). But even so there’s always been something unsavory about the film’s climactic moment, when Sandy has at last allowed herself to be decked out in skankwear, complete with cigarette, & presented to Danny, who promptly bursts into “You’re the One That I Want.”
& yet, there’s no way around it…there’s something thrilling about this moment, too. Poor Sandy’s been persuaded by her friends to change herself, so that she can get a boy & be accepted by the gang, yet somehow the scene feels triumphant anyway—maybe just because it’s so savagely honest about the motivations underlying the ways we dress & act & self-identify.
This scene, & Grease as a whole, would probably come across a lot creepier if the actors really seemed like high school kids; most of them look more like they’re ready for their 20-year class reunions. The wryly sexy Stockard Channing is especially well-served by this incongruity; when she sings “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” or “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” her, shall we say, maturity poignantly suggests that no matter how old we get, most of us can never flush all the high school out of our souls.