Producer extraordin-flaire Allan Carr was responsible for the worst, if not dullest, Oscarcast in history and a disco musical, Can’t Stop the Music, starring the Village People and Bruce Jenner in a cut-off t-shirt ludicrously played as heterosexually as possible. And yet I frequently find myself, in fits of over-reactive pique, citing his lone financial success, 1978’s splenetically nostalgic Grease, as the worst evil unleashed by the man. And keep in mind that he also funded Grease 2. I admit to allowing a general distaste for excitable high school drama students transmute itself into revulsion at every impromptu recreation of Danny and Sandy’s gunslinging dance-off promenade and every Bucky Beaver refrain of “brusha, brusha, brusha.”
Truthfully, there’s something perversely right about the fascination with Grease, a movie whose entire appeal is, essentially, nostalgia for an era where nostalgia meant yet a different era. Despite the film’s rose-tinted rearview mirrors and Ipana-worthy cheeriness, it’s not so much the Wedding Singer of its day as it is the Boogie Nights. Both films are painfully mired in the decade of their making, looking back in great reverie toward the time a full generation past, with the decade in between representing, more or less, the film’s antagonist. The eternal, “We’ll always be together” youth of the ‘50s was portrayed by a generation who was ready to cash in the social advances of the ‘60s in exchange for the pleasure principle, not to mention an era where big-budget musical films could still be a box-office draw. That Grease was the number-one box-office hit of 1978 just goes to show how hard audiences were willing to try to will the past into the present. Those droves weren’t sending Grease up Rocky Horror-style, singing “Who put the coke in the bop-she-bop-she-bop.”
Similarly, Boogie Nights was directed by an Altman worshipper in a Tarantino era, using disco pyrotechnics and ribaldry-in-mainstream-drag to bring back the era of socially-conscious Hollywood films before ‘80s materialism and ‘90s indie hell took the fun out of being incredibly dour. Boogie Nights has its heart in the right place, but whines more than pucker-face Sandy. Grease has no heart and thus can’t misplace it, but filling the gaping void is a nonstop arsenal of accidentally memorable non sequiturs, most of them as appropriately effervescent as the script would require if there actually were a script. It’s a perfect recipe for a definitive junk food film; there isn’t a single calorie in the entire damned thing that isn’t empty. Otherwise superlative grace notes like Stockard Channing’s immortal Rizzo, a baby-dyke precursor acting out a trial run of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, end up flushed out along with the entire system.
And therein lies the film’s true colonic evil. In preparing audiences for a diet consisting of nothing but signals, iconography, and isolated, contextless emotion, this harmless eight-ton poodle skirt of a film really paved the way for media that sells you your memories. Secretly, I like it as much as I like deep-fried cheese curds, but when Grease gets remade two decades from now, it will be a Target commercial. And we’ll all be fat.