Grease at 40: I can no longer hate the film I despised in 1978

Donald Clarke: Resistance is futile to the singalong tunes and the unstoppable Travolta

Almost everyone was too old for high school. Olivia Newton-John was nearly 30, Stockard Channing four years older

Almost everyone was too old for high school. Olivia Newton-John was nearly 30, Stockard Channing four years older

 

In October of 1978, Bob Geldof yawned and tore up a photograph of John Travolta on Top of the Pops. A decade and a bit later, his mate Sinead O’Connor generated much more fuss when she destroyed a snap of the Pope on telly, but there was still a sense that Bob was desecrating an icon.

For all the fuss about “post-punk”, that year belonged to the film version of Grease. The Boomtown Rats’ Rat Trap – ersatz punk elbowing out ersatz rock ’n’ roll – had finally knocked Summer Nights, the film’s big mid-temp duet, from the number one spot. We’d never hear of Grease again. Right? 

Welcome to the 40th anniversary. There is no escape. The picture has been re-released. Think pieces are thick on the ground. Nothing so successful will ever be fully purged from the cultural metabolism.

The figures speak for themselves. That nostalgic 1950s musical was by far the most successful release of 1978. It took in a whopping $395 million. Even after 40 years, with no adjustment for inflation, Grease would sit as the fifth biggest release of 2018. If you do adjust then it counts as the 28th biggest film ever. Smashes such as Ghostbusters, Love Story and The Jungle Book follow pathetically in the adjusted chart.

There’s more. The soundtrack was the second biggest selling LP in the US that year. Only Saturday Night Fever, soundtrack to a Travolta film released the previous year, shifted more copies in 1978.

Grease was bigger in the UK and Ireland than anywhere else. You’re the One That I Want was the British number one for nine weeks. Grease hits were at the top of the charts for nearly a third of the year.

Your current correspondent was among those unable to understand the fuss. We were still too rock-snooty (and, though we’d never have understood the accusation, perhaps a bit too racist) to enjoy disco, but we could appreciate Saturday Night Fever’s gritty cool. Grease was something else. The perennial male bigotry that belittles entertainment aimed largely at young women prompted us to cheer Bob on in his Travolta ripping. Obviously we were fatheads.

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Derived from a hit 1971 musical, Randal Kleiser’s film is warm, charming and pumped with good songs. Yes, almost everyone is too old. Olivia Newton-John, as the prim foreign student who falls for Travolta’s greaser, was nearly 30. Stockard Channing, the feisty Rizzo, was four years older than that. But Travolta was unstoppable in his period of pomp. Resistance was futile.

What really stands out in retrospect is how profoundly the dynamics of nostalgia have changed. Grease spun its romance by harking back to an earlier popular culture that, though still exciting, looked fresher and less cynical than its contemporaneous equivalent.

New Wave situationists who sniffed at the cosiness may have forgotten that Malcolm McLaren, a John the Baptist of punk, began by trying to recapture the raw integrity of 1950s rock ’n’ roll. All the stuff that had come in between – Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, Civil Rights, hyper-inflation – could be forgotten as we drifted back to the distant era that was, well, just 20 years earlier.

It is impossible to imagine a contemporary musical generating the same puzzled affection for distant 1998. We even had the internet then.

The situation is stranger than that. When the musical was written, the events depicted were a mere 12 years away. At no point since has popular culture shifted so quickly and dramatically.

It is thus little wonder that the 1970s were awash with rock ’n’ roll nostalgia. The movement continued with George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973. That film went back to the heady, distant days of 1962 (ah, idyllic 2007!). A year later, Happy Days, which spanned the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, became a massive hit on US television.

Watergate was still spreading its fug around that nation. Violence in Northern Ireland was at its height. Inflation was surging everywhere. Yet we had to take only a single, not very lengthy step backwards to find ourselves in a (largely imaginary, of course) rock ’n’ roll Eden. The escape was almost as total as that provided by Star Wars a year earlier.

Grease didn’t launch any superstars. Stockard Channing made her name largely in the theatre. Jess Conaway, the cheeky Kenickie, secured a role in Taxi when the film was still in cinemas. Travolta went into a slump before rediscovery in Pulp Fiction years later. After the dubious teen skin-flick The Blue Lagoon, Kleiser slipped into so-so sequel and ho-hum TV movie territory. The film itself become a sing-along staple.

One lesson of Grease’s success has yet to be fully learned: all obituaries for the musical should be disregarded. It will not die.

The Greatest Showman has just defied awful reviews to become a mainstream hit. High School Musical was the smash of the 21st century’s first decade. Despite all those people boasting that they’re the only person who hates it, La La Land won six Oscars and did well everywhere.

See also Chicago, Les Miserables and the enormous Mamma Mia!

No harm to Bob. But the genre easily outlasted the Boomtown Rats.    

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