Why did people in the '70s love the '50s so much? Was it part of the wave of hippie-provoked nostalgia that unaccountably revived the Gay '90s and the Dustbowl '30s? Or did Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, Happy Days, and John Lennon's Rock 'N' Roll represent a coordinated counterculture attempt to reclaim the conservative Golden Age for its legion of beatniks, greasers, and rebels without a cause?
Grease arrived both toward the beginning and toward the end of the '50s revival. The stage musical opened on Broadway in 1972, and in spite of middling reviews, it connected with audiences who responded to the catchy songs, tongue-in-cheek sexual frankness, and love-and-loss-in-high-school plot. The 1978 movie version follows more or less the same model, but adds songs with more of a late-'70s pop-disco feel, and adds iconic performances by Olivia Newton-John (as the squeaky-clean girl who learns to be a little rough) and John Travolta (as the agile punk who learns not to care so much about his image). Director Randall Kleiser, in collaboration with Grease's original choreographer Patricia Birch, combines the best of "new Hollywood" and old, creating still frames that look like snapshots in a high-school yearbook, yet filled with crazy background action, like a cross between a Robert Altman comedy and a Mad magazine margin-doodle.
Grease's gender politics are pretty screwy, and its understanding of the '50s amounts to a few cultural signifiers: hot cars, leather jackets, soda shops, and dance contests. But there's a reason the movie remains a slumber-party staple, and it isn't the muddled "don't worry about what other people think" message. It's more the film's dreamy look, and the way we learn more about Travolta and Newton-John through the lies they sing in "Summer Nights" than through any line of dialogue. Grease is a pure pop construct, fueled by movie-star poses, hit songs, and persistent audience fantasies of being an acceptable kind of "bad." Barry Gibb-penned disco theme aside, Grease doesn't really belong to any one era. It's like it's always existed.
Key features: A chummy, revealing commentary track by Kleiser and Birch, and a full set of featurettes, highlighted by a recent live performance of Grease hits by a still-spry Travolta and Newton-John.