"'Grease' is the Word," say the ads. Now that the film version has opened at the Uptown, the word that springs immediately to mind is "excruciating."
Stodgier musicals have blundered onto the screen. "A Little Night Music" was the most recent example.
Keener disappointments have resulted from the transposition of a hit Broadway show to Hollywood. "Gypsy" ended up inflated and miscast. George Sidney sanitized "Pal Joey" and then trashed "Bye Bye Birdie."
"Grease," a skimpy but energetic show purpoting to take a tongue-in-cheek nostalgic glance at the clinches of high school culture in the rock-'n'-rollin' 50s, has attained a durable theatrical success. Nevertheless, its appeal remains somewhat mystifying. How many other hit shows can boast a score without a single memorable song?
The presumption behind the film's publicity campaign is infuriating: that "Grease" is a revitalization of the film musical, as fresh and shiny as the complexion of Olivia Newton-John or the stardom of John Travolta.
The incongruous high school sweethearts of the show, demure Sandy and wild Danny, Newton-John and Travolta will be fortunate if they come out of this mess with only first-degree career burns. They're lucky that their recording careers don't depend on this vehicle. Their singing voices are metallicized and virtually obliterated by a recording style geared to clanging orchestrations punctuated by an incessant disco beat, lest anyone forget the craze of the moment despite the ostensible '50s setting.
Newton-John has a simple, innocious love song called "Hopelessly Devoted to You." Her own limited but mellow vocal instrument should be allowed to carry whatever charge of sentiment the tune can muster. Instead, the number and the performer are throttled by over-orchestration. An interlude that ought to be as sweet as Judy Garland singing "The Boy Next Door" is transformed into an earsore.
It's a typical of the current incestuous relationship between the record business and the movie business that a duet added to the score for Newton-John and Travolta, "You're the One That I Want," was promoted into a hit single weeks before the movie opened. The soundtrack album also arrived far in advance of the film. "Grease" joins the trend toward movies that are manufactured to supplement albums than the other way around.
"You're the One That I want? is the finale, a carnival at apocryphal, ineffable Rydell High, where the school day seems to be over before it's begun and all sports are played in the same season, if one is to believe some of the stranger illustrative details. The series of spats that constitutes a spurious excuse for the rambling scenario are resolved when Sandy shows up dressed like a cycle groupe to please Danny, while he shows up dressed like a straight-arrow to please her.
Newton-John tears off her leather jacket. Travolta discards his varsity sweater (a mysterious acquisition), and they gyrate around while director Randal Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch bungle their final attempt to imitate the spacious, bouncy production numbers from vintage musicals, in this case "Once a Year Day" from "The Pajama Game." The sight of Newton-John is a slinky-kinky black outfit and ratty blond wig somehow rationalized the whole debacle. Every tacky conception, lewd joke and disheveled sequence along the way points toward this consummation: the transformation of traditional ingenue into contemporary floozy.
The movie performs a similar dis-service for the musical form. "Grease" seems to reflect an erratic, loveless imagination. It's a spectacle of debasement masquerading as knock-about fluff. Despite the obvious attempts to recall bits from Stanley Donen musicals or Elvis Presley musicals or Frankie-and-Annette musicals, the spirit is closer to the New Tastelessness exemplified by Ken Russell, minus Russell's slick visual style.
If it's true that "Grease" reflects producer Allan Carr's fondest dreams of what a movie musical should look and feel like, he should be put away. I've never seen an uglier large-scale musical. I mean ugly in spirit as well as visually unattractive and melodically impoverished.
"Grease" bears the same relationship to the musicals I admire and cherish that "Rabbit Test" bears to favorite comedies and "Capricorn One" to favorite thrillers. It's depressing to think that all three might really become box-office hits. Are the movies recapturing a mass audience less discriminating than ever before?
Given the pressures of mass advertising, the popularity of Travolta, and the natural misconception that "Grease" must be harmless, light-weight entertainment, parents may find it difficult to steer kids away from the film. But why give the benefit of the doubt to a supposedly innocuous movie that considers smutty patter cute and charming.
Graduating from "Welcome Back Kotter" to "Saturday Night Fever," Travolta became a crown prince of raunch. But beneath the lurid, foul-mouthed excesses of the first film, one could perceive the story of a kid who aspired to a classier culture. Although the movie reveled in raunch, it also implied that the raunch could engulf you if you made no effort to transcend it.
"Grease" doesn't waste or abuse Travolta any more than the other performers. No one can shine in this context. Unable to concentrate on their star even during his solo, the filmmakers upstage him with an animated drive-in trailer. The movies can be insidious. Just the other day Travolta became a star playing a kid who aspired to transcend the tacky. Now here he is playing lead incorrigible punk in a musical that thinks stupefying is stylish and tacky is beautiful.