Yesterday, comedian Michael Showalter posted a seemingly innocuous comment on Twitter:
Perhaps to his own surprise, Showalter was almost immediately besieged by testimonials agreeing that, not only does Grease 2 hold up, it even surpasses the original. So here’s the think-piece he requested.
First, there’s the simple fact that many of us grew up with the 1982 sequel on a cable loop, often running more than the illustrious Grease. As a result, some of us know “Cool Rider” better than “Summer Nights.” But there’s another aspect that explains the sequel’s intense fandom: In the 1978 movie, idol-on-the-rise John Travolta plays the greaser Danny, while Australian pop singer Olivia Newton-John is the strait-laced Sandy. Theirs is a love story about trying to change identities to fit in with who they think the other wants them to be. And while Danny halfheartedly tries being a jock, in the end it’s Sandy who undergoes the biggest makeover, ditching her cardigans for skin-tight leather pants and totally morphing into Danny’s ideal, leaving her real self far behind.
Grease 2 offered a gender swap: Stephanie, played by then-unknown Michelle Pfeiffer, is a female greaser Pink Lady, while Maxwell Caulfield (Rex Manning himself) plays Sandy’s nerdy yet hunky Australian cousin, Michael. Stephanie offers a much better female role model than the mousy, cheerleading Sandy, as June Diane Raphael pointed out to Showalter:
She’s so cool, in fact, that Stephanie has two guys chasing after her—Michael and her ex, Johnny (played by Adrian Zmed)—and she attracts them both without changing a hair on her gorgeous head. Unlike Grease’s “cool” Rizzo (Stockard Channing), Stephanie doesn’t have to be mean to anyone who doesn’t fit into her Pink Lady standard. She’s just cool, period.
Also, let’s face it, Grease 2 has some great songs—and mirroring its refreshingly equal-rights sexual frankness, there’s nothing so egregious as that “Did she put up a fight?” line in “Summer Nights.” Instead, the Grease 2 kids go all in on their hormones together in “Reproduction,” just one of the songs that surpasses some of the original’s tunes.
It’s not a surprise that the musical numbers would shine, seeing as Grease 2 was directed by Patricia Birch, the Grease choreographer who understandably focused on her strong points for her first (and, still, only) feature film. So while “Score Tonight (Let’s Bowl)” lacks a lot in the lyrics (“Let’s bowl, let’s bowl, let’s / Rock ’n’ roll”), it makes up for it with its energetic bowling alley dance number. The character-establishing “Back To School Again” is an all-hands-on-deck extravaganza worthy of Busby Berkeley. The T-Birds’ epic, “Prowlin’,” ably led by Zmed, has a subtle heat that “Greased Lightning” would roll right over. The girls’ number, “Girl For All Seasons,” is a lovely composition showing off Pfeiffer’s surprising pipes (and the less-surprising ones of Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft). And then there’s the aforementioned “Cool Rider,” the movie’s best musical moment, and a showcase for Pfeiffer’s Travolta-rivaling charisma.
Away from the musical numbers, Pfeiffer’s easy chemistry with Caulfield—most notably in a study session at a burger restaurant—may be the closest the Grease movies ever came to actual charming banter. She’s also got a far more sophisticated take on love: In the end, Stephanie goes off with Michael not (just) because he has a badass motorcycle, but because she knows he’s a smart, sweet guy who really likes her.
Let’s be clear, Grease 2 is not perfect (Exhibit A: “Let’s Do It For Our Country,” in which a boy tries to seduce a girl in a bomb shelter. Exhibit B: A really, really unfortunate musical dream sequence with terrible dialogue. Stephanie: “Just when I found you, I lost you!” Michael: “That doesn’t matter now.” Exhibit C: Bullshit Pink Lady code as plot contrivance). But then, neither was Grease. Nevertheless, Grease was such a blockbuster that Grease 2’s relative critical and commercial failure has earned it a legacy as one of film’s worst sequels. It’s undeserved. No one should be surprised that some people actually prefer it. Those people know a cool rider when they see one.