"Grease is the word, is the word that you heard, it's got a groove, it's got a meaning. Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion. Grease is the way we are feeling."
I have no idea what that means.
I doubt songwriter Barry Gibb did either when he whipped off that catchy tune to play over the opening credits of "Grease" in 1978. The fact that a 1950s nostalgia movie was being released at the height of the disco era with a title track penned by Mr. Bee Gee and sung by Mr. Four Seasons (Frankie Valli) could have been a recipe for a big flop.
Instead, the mishmash of eras proved irrelevant.
"Grease" became the top-grossing film of the year, topping such mega-hits as "Superman" and "Animal House." It also went on to become the top-grossing live-action movie musical of all time, a title it held until just last year when it was surpassed by "Beauty and the Beast."
Its multiplatinum double album spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's chart and served as the soundtrack for the summer of '78. It spawned two No. 1 singles, "You're the One That I Want" and "Grease," as well as two other top-10 hits: "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "Summer Nights."
Based on the endlessly touring Broadway show, "Grease" hit theaters on June 16, 1978.
The toe-tapping songs were enhanced by the too-cute-for-words co-stars: John Travolta, as quasi tough guy Danny, and Olivia Newton-John, as sweet and innocent Sandy. Travolta was in the middle of a super-successful, three-picture deal with Paramount Pictures, bookended by "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977 and "Urban Cowboy" in 1980.
Danny and Sandy were joined by Rizzo and Frenchie (Stockard Channing and Didi Conn), Kenickie (Jeff Conaway) and a host of singers, dancers and bygone stars (Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Joan Blondell, Edd "Kookie" Byrnes and Frankie Avalon).
Grease is a likable, energetic film that never takes itself too seriously. The charisma of the two stars helped smooth over some of the rough patches and cringe-worthy songs ("Greased Lightnin'"), and helped audiences forget that most of their fellow "teenage" students were performers in their late 20s and 30s.
The film was the child of an odd trio: music industry kingpin Robert Stigwood, who also produced "Saturday Night Fever"; producer-manager Allan Carr (of "Can't Stop the Music" infamy); and director Randal Kleiser, whose previous credits included the TV movie "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble" (also starring Travolta).
In a savvy promotional move, Stigwood released the Travolta-Newton-John duet "You're the One That I Want" two months before the film's release, and its endless radio airplay provided great publicity.
It's a musical and a love story, although one with a dubious message: In order to land a man, all you need to do is start smoking and wear super-tight black sharkskin pants, as Sandy does in the film's climactic sequence.
Newton-John once explained that the pants were so tight the costume crew needed to sew her into them for the takes.
Some performers are dialed in. Sandy was "stitched in."
The original film was rated PG. But Paramount's "Grease: Sing-A-Long" version, released in 2010, earned the more restrictive PG-13 rating from the MPAA, "for sexual content including references, teen smoking and drinking, and language."
They didn't mention the pants.
In honor of the anniversary, Paramount Home Video has compiled a "Grease 40th Anniversary" 4K Ultra HD, and a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital combo pack. Extras include interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes and a look at the first "Grease" stage production (by the Kingston Mines Theatre Company in Chicago in 1971). The combo pack also includes a 16-page Rydell High yearbook-like booklet.
Following "Grease," the musicals genre saw a rash of bombs in the 1980s – "Popeye," "Xanadu," "Pennies from Heaven" – followed by a rash of Disney animated hits in the 1990s: "Aladdin," "The Lion King," "Mulan," "Beauty and the Beast." Things turned around on the live-action side with "Chicago" in 2002, which won six Oscars including best picture, and "Hairspray" in 2007 (with Travolta as Edna Turnblad), which earned more than $100 million.
The recent critical and commercial success of "La La Land" and "The Greatest Showman" proved that movie musicals do not need to be derived from Broadway shows in order to attract a wide audience. The soundtrack from "The Greatest Showman" spent an astounding 12 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. (In England, it tied Adele's "21" for the most weeks at No. 1 on the U.K. charts.)
Both films include songs written or co-written by the tandem of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The duo is on fire. Last year, they won an Oscar for Best Original Song for "City of Stars" from "La La Land," and scored an Oscar nomination earlier this year for writing the rousing "This Is Me" for "The Greatest Showman." In their spare time, they won a Tony Award for their score for "Dear Evan Hansen," which was also named best musical.
Pasek and Paul have more songs coming. Here are some of the movie musicals headed our way in the next 12 months.
– "Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!" (July 20). It's been 10 years since the original with Meryl Streep as Donna bouncing about singing ABBA songs. The follow-up, with more ABBA songs and Lily James as the young Donna, looks as if it features just about every performer in Hollywood.
– "A Star is Born" (Oct. 5). They're going to get this right, I swear. This is the fourth version of this film. It was made in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The pairing this fall is Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Cooper also directed.
– "Mary Poppins Returns" (Dec. 25). Emily Blunt takes over the Julie Andrews role and shows up to help out the now-grown Banks children. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Meryl Streep co-star.
– "Aladdin" (May 24, 2019). Pasek and Paul wrote new songs to add to the classics by Alan Menken and Tim Rice for this live-action remake of the beloved animated film from 1992. Will Smith stars as the Genie with Naomi Scott as Jasmine.
– "The Lion King" (July 19, 2019). Yep. The Disney musical train keeps rolling. This live-action (and CGI) remake of the 1994 film will feature Donald Glover as Simba, Beyonce as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar and Seth Rogen as Pumbaa. One original cast member returns: 87-year-old James Earl Jones as Mufasa.