“Guess Mine Is Not the First Heart Broken…”
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Forty Years of Grease and Its Incredible Soundtrack: Summer Nights, Beauty School Dropouts and Tears on My Pillow
I will look at the incredible soundtrack for Grease…
IN THIS PHOTO: Olivia Newton-John (Sandy Olsson) and John Travolta (Danny Zuko) in Grease/PHOTO CREDIT: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock
in a moment but it seems, forty years after its release; the film is still thrilling audiences and getting people off of the sofa! Released in cinemas during September of 1978, we travel back to the summer of 1958 and greaser Danny Zuko’s infatuation and romance with Australian girl Sandy Olsson. Their beach-set beginnings look like the end of something wonderful. They fear, given the fact Sandy is returning to Australia, means they will never meet again. Entering the new school, Rydell High, Danny reunites with his greaser gang, T-Birds. Among the group are Kenickie, Doody and Putzie. Sandy arrives at the school with her girls, the Pink Ladies, and their romance rekindles. Skipping to the end the two – Sandy adopts a leather jacket and tougher attitude eventually – depart in a muscle car into the sunset after an eventful time at high-school. Whilst I am, obviously, no Mark Kermode (except for the wild hair), you need to watch the film in-full to experience its magic and brilliance. There is a school of thought – the close-minded and uneducated – who say a film like Grease is not suitable for a heterosexual male – it is a bit camp and, well, it’s a musical! That would be a rather ignorant view and one I swat away with a derisory snort!
Although the film is set in 1958, it brings together elements of the 1970s and matches the Doo-Wop and greaser culture with something a bit more Punk and modern. Grease the film came seven years after the musical (with songs by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey). The film version is written by the exceptional Bronte Woodward and directed by Randal Kleiser. The clash of the bad-girl Danny and the then-good Sandy; the switch and transformation to a more sensitive (if boorish) Danny and the rebellious Sandy is great to watch. The film struck a chord at a time when albums like The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope and The Jam’s All Mod Cons were stunning critics. The two worlds hardly seem to meet but, in an America where Blondie was striking hard and Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town was getting into the public mindset; it is no shock to find a film like Grease succeeding and inspiring. The soundtrack, which I shall get to, ended 1978 as the second-best-selling album of the year (behind the soundtrack to another John Travolta film, Saturday Night Fever). Travolta puts in another epic performance – at a period of his career where he could do little wrong – and Olivia Newton-John, as Sandy, steals the show. In fact; the soundtrack-defining song, Hopelessly Devoted to You, lost out on an Oscar to Donna Summer’s Last Dance (in the Best Original Song category). The chemistry between Newton-John and Travolta is charming, electric and passionate.
It is no surprise critics vacillated and raved when the film hit theatres. They loved its fun and fascinating central story; the brilliant players in the gangs and the incredible music. Given the fact the film is forty this year; lots of new stories are coming out that could point the way to a third instalment – Grease 2 saw little of the original cast return and did not fare nearly as well with critics. Didi Conn, who played the beauty school dropout Frenchy, gave an interview where she revealed that on-screen chemistry and sexuality came naturally:
“The chemistry between John and Olivia was real — very, very real,” before hastily correcting herself and adding: “A romance? No, no no. Just onset.”
The late Jeff Conaway was the most prolific shagger behind the scenes, matching his bad-boy character Kenickie.
“He just oozed sexuality and he was an ever-ready bunny,” Didi said.
“He was just a very, very sexy guy.
“He and [cheerleader] Patty Simcox [actor Susan Buckner] they had a lot of rehearsing, they had fun”.
Olivia Newton-John gave a recent interview where she was asked about reprising the role of Sandy and getting the gang, minus Conway, back together:
“I can’t imagine that working now but you never know what someone could come up with. If there was a great idea then, of course, we would consider it, or at least I would. If John was up for it then I think I would be too but we couldn’t do it without each other.’ Before adding: ‘Let’s see what the future brings”.
Back in April; The Guardian reviewed the fortieth anniversary release of Grease and drilled down to its essential core:
“Grease broke John Travolta through to family audiences who might have been chary about his more adult movie sensation, Saturday Night Fever, the year before. It was part of the 70s fashion for 50s nostalgia that also had its expression in George Lucas’s American Graffiti and Garry Marshall’s longrunning TV show Happy Days, and survived in the form of Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future in 1985. Travolta’s effortless dancing here is different from his lithe and narcotically sexy disco performances in Saturday Night Fever. In Grease it is more family-friendly. Still superb, less about pelvic grinding than about the quiff, elbows and the knees rotating in 45-degree shunts, as if he were appearing in an Egyptian frieze. It’s still a sugar-rush of a film”.
The film is electric…it’s hydromatic…it’s; okay, I’ll stop! Rather than see me dance on an American muscle car and throw an oily rag around; it is worth looking at the soundtrack and why it, alongside the film itself, has remained essential and popular for forty years. Grease is the only musical I have ever seen. I saw it in London back in the 1990s and can remember it clearly. The fact I have not seen another musical – I keep meaning to see Hamilton and The Book of Mormon – is not a commentary about the musical itself: I loved the staging and was introduced to its incredible songs. I saw the film just after and loved how these catchy and singalong gems were brought to life by the cast.
Articles like this one rank the songs and place numbers like Those Magic Changes and Beauty School Dropout as inessential; Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee and You’re the One That I Want as would-be-legendary-in-any-other-film-but-this-is-Grease category – they put the film’s title-song and Hopelessly Devoted to You as the classics. There is a general feeling that Greased Lightnin’ and Hopelessly Devoted to You are in the top-three: some place Summer Nights higher up and others feel We Go Together as better-than-expected. Fans and casual followers can battle regarding the definitive top-five but it is clear there are those songs, performed by Sha Na Na, that are contextual but semi-ineffectual; the beauty school dropout is a flop but – wait…I am going to break into song again. Although Stockard Channing (Rizzo) and Cindy Bullens (nee Cidney Bullens) take some of the songs; it is the classics where Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta lead that stick in the mind. I love how the score and performances evoke the giddiness and vintage cool of the 1950s. Travolta, on tracks like Greased Lightnin’, evokes the spirit of Elvis Presley (a year after The King died) and classic singers from the day. Both he and Olivia Newton-John run a gamut of emotional tones and take their voice in all kinds of directions. The songs bring together styles and sounds of the 1950s but there is a tougher and more inventive spirit that would run through the 1960s and 1970s.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Many do not listen to the music of the 1950s but I feel Grease is a reason to return to the decade. Maybe the high-school that back-dropped the film is atypical in terms of most of our experiences. Most of our parents and grandparents did not have cool gangs and got to have a jolly old time – maybe the American school system was less rigid and disciplinarian during that time. It is the escapism and sense of fun that overrides the pains, revelations and broken hearts. There is giddiness and delight to be found when John Travolta and greased mechanics proactively dance in a garage and, to be fair, throw smut and innuendo into the mix – Greased Lightnin’ throws tits, sh*t and creaming into its lyrics! It is a raunchy, racy and revelatory song that defined Danny and his mentality; his rebellious spirit and ladies’ man cool. One of the biggest revelations from the film is the voice of John Travolta. He manages to exhilarate and swagger like Presley here; he is more seductive and beckoning on Sandy; cool and sexy on Summer Nights – I often wonder whether an album should have arrived from him! Olivia Newton-John has a couple of standalone performances. Whereas Sandy is the sole lone outing from Travolta; Newton-John has Hopelessly Devoted to You - a more potent and complex performance. Newton-John, the professional singer, was award-nominated for the song. She had the more tested and stronger voice and, with John Farrar writing and producing the track; Hopelessly Devoted to You became the star of the soundtrack.
The song has gained huge legacy and success since its release. It stands as a solid song that defies the times and is a timeless thing. The heart-aching performance and lyrics of longing and loss touched the masses and highlighted Newton-John’s amazing voice. She would go on to enjoy a successful recording career but, back then, was a new name that was not known to the whole world. Against the angst and electric fervour that scores many of the biggest numbers; Grease’s hero and saint is Hopelessly Devoted to You. It is before Sandy turned spiker and bolder: a sensitive and vulnerable performance that demonstrates how much Danny’s love meant to her. The song itself was written and produced by Newton-John’s personal producer who knew what her voice was capable of and he, in turn, turned in a song perfect for her. Producers were reluctant to include the song – it was filmed and captured after a lot of the film has already been shot. I love the solo Travolta outing, Sandy, but it is when he and his paramour get together in song where you get the strongest effect. You’re the One That I Want is endlessly addictive and inflamed; Summer Nights and We Go Together have quotable lines by the gallons and are brilliantly performed. The slick and exceptional production makes the songs pop and shine – I prefer the studio-recorded versions of the songs as opposed those in the film.
There were musicals before Grease but few that created such an impact in the mainstream. The soundtrack has sold over twenty-eight-million and it is one of the best-selling albums of all time. We do not see many great musicals on the screens these days and I wonder whether anyone can top the classics like Grease. We have modern musicals but can producers and writers travel back in time and produce something as universal and popular as Grease?! I don’t think they can capture the spirit and chemistry we see in the film and hear on the soundtrack. From the Frankie Valli-sung title-track to the underrated songs like Rock N’ Roll Party Queen; there is a banquet of sounds and sensations! I feel there is an appetite for another musical like Grease and, the fact the fortieth anniversary is bringing fresh fans out means it has not aged or dated in any way. The setting of high-school romance and two people from different sides of the tracks finding love has a timelessness and universality. I have not seen the film for a few years but will make sure I catch it soon. The re-release of the film saw many going to cinemas dressed in 1950s clothing – leather jackets, greased hair and plenty of colour. Unlike the 1980s; there is an innate sense of cool and mystique you can never get enough of.
At a time when Disco was still making waves; the cast and performers were rolling back the years and introducing the young generation to the music their parents would be familiar with. The original songs have their own identity but vividly transport you to the decade and the best Pop/Rock ‘n’ Roll around. The reason I highlighted the soundtrack is because it has proved so popular with the people. You do not need to be familiar with the film and be a super-fan: anyone can come to the music fresh and be amazed by it. The songs bring you in and provoke you to get involved and moving! A lot of film soundtracks (musical or otherwise) suffer from poor lyrics or too many all-cast performances – not enough strong standalone cuts or variation. Grease is rousing when Danny and Sandy’s gangs are sparring and united; it is spellbinding when the leads are together and starling when each takes a lead vocal. You get these effortless combinations and tracks that etch into the mind and, whether boy/man/woman/girl, resonate and identify. You need not be a musical fan to love Grease’s music and can find something new every time you play it (soundtrack). Forty years after the film and soundtrack were unveiled to the world; it is obvious we all still love and fascinated by two vivacious sweethearts and…
THEIR incredible moments.