‘Grease’ cashes in on Travolta, nostalgia
By James Tinney, Times Herald reporter
In the cautious movie business where everyone is looking for sure-fire hits, “Grease” is one of the surest.
lt cashes in on two fads — nostalgia and John Travolta. lt steals its atmosphere from two of the biggest of television hits Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley.” And it serves up a pasteurized, homogenized, sterilized view of the 1950s that is as easily digested as pablum.
The key to success
“Grease” takes no chances. lt bets that blandness is the key to success.
How else to explain the casting of Olivia Newton-John as Sandy, the female lead? Her albums have helped make blandness into a growth industry. She has that unflawed look of a mannequin. Her acting sets off no sparks. She remembers her lines. She’s perfect for “Grease.”
Of course, Olivia is not the main attraction of “Grease.” That honor falls to Travolta, whose successful shows of sex appeal in repetitive roles may make him the Marilyn Monroe of the 1970s.
Travolta basically repeats the role he played so well in “Saturday Night Fever” (he even wins another dance contest). But this time around, he shows more of a heart of gold as Danny Zuko, the cool greaser who is torn between his true love and his cool image.
That conflict (such as it is) is the basis for much of the slim plot of “Grease.”
Sandy and Danny get together and break up in a series of herky-jerky scenes that lack any narrative power. But they do set up the series of song-and-dance numbers that keep the movie moving.
Many good movie musicals have overcome slim plots. But the singing and dancing alone isn’t enough to save “Grease.”
“You’re the One That I Want,” the top 40 hit, comes off well with Newton-John and Travolta prancing around a carnival. And a few of the other dance numbers are professionally, if not imaginatively, done.
But for every high point, there is at least one low point. Frankie Avalon singing “Beauty School Dropout” is not a moment that will go down in Hollywood history. And Travolta’s voice brings back no memories of Sinatra.
Amiability a boost
Without strong music or script, “Grease” has to hope for success on the basis of acting and pure amiability. At least two excellent actresses are on display, Stockard Channing and Didi Conn (star of “You Light Up My Life). They play two members of the Pink Ladies, the cool group of girls who eventually come to accept Sandy.
As for amiability, there‘s plenty of that, too. Everyone in the movie, and the audience for that matter, seems to be having a good time.
Amiability and mediocrity. That may not sound like much.
But put it together with John Travolta, and it’s worth a few million dollars.