Why do people keep paying to see movies in theaters when they could watch other films or play video games, for less money or for free, at home? All right, because moviegoing is the last relatively cheap date. But mainly because it' s a cathedral experience: a hundred or a thousand votaries in a dark room whose only light illuminates those big, gorgeous stars and their dreadful, beautiful problems. The downside is that watching movies is essentially passive. They play; we watch. The only interactive aspect is arguing with the boor on his cell phone two rows behind you.
So a harmonic shout goes out to Grease: Sing-a-long. The 1978 movie was based on the Jim Jacobs-Warren Casey smash show that ran for more than eight years on Broadway and, in its lead character of hotrod hunk Danny Zuko, gave seminal career breaks to young actors who'd stay around for a while: Patrick Swayze, Barry Bostwick, Richard Gere, Peter Gallagher, David Hasselhoff, Treat Williams and... John Travolta. When the movie version came out with the newly-hot Travolta as Danny, having a cross-clique romance with sweet Sandy Olsson at all-Caucasian Rydell High it was the top moneymaker of its year and, in real dollars, the 26th biggest earner of all time, as well as the third highest-grossing musical after The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.
One of the last movie musicals to spawn five top-five singles on the Billboard charts, Grease sent Jacobs' and Casey's teen anthems "Summer Nights" and "We Go Together" to #5, and augmented the Broadway score with three new songs that did even better: the title song (#1), the uptempo duet for Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, You're the One That I Want (#2) and the Newton-John ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You" (#3). So there's plenty of Grease music stocked in the cranial iPods of both middle-aged fans and the Glee generation.
Now, in the summer-camp and just plain camp tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the specialized showings of The Sound of Music (they came dressed as nuns) and Mamma Mia!, the Grease rerelease encourages full-throated audience participation through on-screen lyrics.
These aren't your great-grandfather's movie sing-alongs, with words at the bottom and a ball bouncing on the appropriate syllable. Designers Randy Spendlove and Jason Richmond, working with the ROK!T graphics group, have truly animated the Grease song sheet. "Greased Lightnin'" gets a spinning wheel for the O in GO, and Zeus bolts for the "lightnin'." In the ballads, pink hearts flutter above the lyrics like kitsch angels. It's imaginative animation in the UPA or Warner Bros. cartoon spirit of the '50s, the decade of the Grease story; and it gives the movie a Saturday-matinee vibe, where everyone's a kid and making noise at a movie is part of the show. (And in case the auditorium playing the revival is underpopulated, Grease's sound track has been laced with background singers.) If you're not compelled to sing along, call an ambulance; you may have died without realizing it.
Good thing the songs dig their hooks into our brains, and the graphics are so smart and zesty, because the actual film, as an exercise in the fine art of mise-en-scene, still stinks. The director, Randal Kleiser, had no, repeat no, skill at figuring out what to do with the camera or most of the actors. The look is primitive, the tempo slack (a crime, considering the energy of the story and cast), and every agonizing reaction shot is a cue for assaultive mugging. Kleiser focused his lazy closeups on actors far beyond their school days: Travolta, Kelly Ward and Dinah Manoff were the only under-25s among the 10 main high-schoolers, and Stockard Channing (very good as the slutty Rizzo) was 34 when the movie opened. And as an insult to the decade he was supposed to be apotheosizing, Kleiser exhumed '50s TV comedy stars Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Dody Goodman and saddled them with rickety dialogue (script by Bronte Woodard), which he then lamely directed.