FILM (1978)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway
Director: Randal Kleiser

All together now: 'Go grease lightning, you're burning up the quarter mile/(Grease lightning, go grease lightning)/Go grease lightning, you're coasting through the heat lap trial/(Grease lighting, go grease lightning)/You are supreme/ The chicks'll scream/For grease lightning/Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.'

Now a staple of karaoke bars (if the lads are drunk enough) and high school musicals (if the teachers are drunk enough), Greased Lightning was the original title of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's 1971 theatrical smash - only minus the 'd' on the end of Greased. Having graduated from Chicago to Broadway, Grease set a box office record of 3,388 performances, before conquering the world and then Hollywood - courtesy of John Travolta's quiff and hips, and Olivia Newton-John's skin-tight wholesomeness.

The song itself is a highlight on stage and screen. Placed mid-way through act one, it is both a contrast (to the Pink Ladies' girlish sleepover) and a mickey-take: the greaser T-Birds (or Burger Palace Boys as they were on stage) mock Kenickie's newly purchased, but distinctly second-hand wheels with a devastating combination of close-harmony singing and thigh-straining dance moves.

Aptly, then, the song is a parody in a homage's clothing: early Elvis with a backing band of early Elvises. In the 1978 movie, the sight of a lithe and limber Travolta surrounded by several lithe and limber carbon copies is almost more than the mind can bear. But as the song motors off, the spoof loses its confidence almost immediately as the T-birds set about convincing themselves (and us) that Kenickie's car might just amount to something. All it needs is lots of work and lots of cash.

Just as quickly, it becomes apparent that Sandy's real competition for Danny's heart is not ex-girlfriend Cha Cha, his industrial-strength hair gel, the other T-Birds or even his gargantuan ego: it's the teen boy's fantasy of taking a beat-up ol' Dodge and turning it into a cherry red 'pussy wagon'.

In the context of Grease (the movie), the song anticipates the James Dean-esque car duel, and mirrors Sandy's less than inspiring transformation into a T-bird's ideal, er, bird (presumably with a pair of furry dice). In this, Greased Lightning fits snugly and somewhat smugly into a classic American love affair between boys and their automobiles: Stephen King's Christine, ee cummings' sex on four wheels poem, 'she being Brand/- new'.

But you'll have to go some to match the sheer erotic obviousness of Travolta singing: 'You know that ain't no shit/We'll be getting lots of tit/In Grease Lightning/Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.' Just when you thought the innuendo couldn't get more overt, Travolta vanishes, deus ex machina, above the screen, only to reappear, straddling an engine like some sex-crazed rodeo rider mounted on an enormous phallic metaphor: 'You are supreme/The chicks'll cream/For grease lightning'. Greased Lightning (Go, greased lightning): it ain't subtle, but it sure is catchy.