Although it was released a couple of decades after the genre’s heyday, 1978’s Grease went on to become one of the most popular musicals ever made. The movie consolidated the success of John Travolta, who had achieved stardom with Saturday Night Fever the year before, thrust singer Olivia Newton-John into the international spotlight, and produced a hit soundtrack LP and singles.
The film is based on a 1971 stage musical, although its story and some of musical numbers differ from the original. The action takes place in an American high school in the 1950s. The rebellious Danny (Travolta) has a summer fling with the pretty Australian Sandy (Newton-John), who tells him she’s returning to Australia with her family.
Danny is a greaser – the 50s equivalent of a rocker – and his cool image is everything to him. So when Sandy turns up at his school on the first day of term – her family having decided to stay in the United States – Danny humiliates her in front of his friends. The rest of the film revolves around Danny trying to show Sandy he’s actually a nice guy.
Newton-John, who grew up in Australia, was known as a country pop singer before Grease – she’d had a big hit with Country Roads, Take Me Home. A bad experience on her first film, Toomorrow (1970), made her cautious, and she asked for a screen test before she signed on for Grease, to check she could play the role. The producers liked what they saw and changed the script to make Sandy Australian and not American.
The change in her character’s demeanour that occurs in Grease – from a nice straight girl to a raunchy rocker – was reflected in Newton-John’s own career, and she abandoned her nice-girl image for a spicier look for pop hits such as 1981’s Physical. Newton-John capitalised on the success of Grease two years later with another musical film, Xanadu (1980), in part written by Jeff Lynne of ELO.
The stage play was more serious than the movie, and some of the most memorable musical numbers were composed specifically for the film. Grease, the groovy title track, was written by Bee Gee Barry Gibb, and became a big hit for Frankie Valli. The film’s big number, You’re the One That I Want, was also written for the film adaptation. Stage revivals of the musical have often added songs composed from the film.
Grease 2 (1982) starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield, and reversed the idea, with the boy being taught to loosen up by the girl. There has often been talk of a Grease sequel featuring Travolta and Newton-John, but as the actress points out, their age would make it a very different kind of film.
The sing-along version of Grease will be screened on September 9 at Movie Movie Cityplaza, in Taikoo Shing, and on September 16 at Palace IFC, in Central, as part of Movie Movie’s Life is Art Festival.