Today, on this rainy and slightly hungover Sunday I decided to get out my Grease DVD and give it a watch. This was partly in tribute to Annette Charles, AKA Grease baddie Cha Cha DiGregorio, who died in the week, and partly as a bit of escapism from the doom and gloom of the news.
Like many people my age, I pretty much grew up with this film. It is embedded in my cultural consciousness - I can practically recite it from beginning to end and my conversation is frequently littered with weird little quotes from the script. There was a brief period during my sullen, indie-kid adolescence when I turned against it - it was tainted then for me by being a bit mainstream and by that ubiquitous god-awful 'Grease medley', beloved of school discos at the time (I still can't stand that bastardisation of those great songs). But i was being a contrary idiot and now I see that it is a brilliant, funny, joyous piece of cinema.
As a 'teen movie' I just can't imagine Grease being made today. It isn't a puritanical film and there is something pretty unsanitised in its view of adolescence - it's not afraid of sex or booze or fags. It's full of fairly explicit references to sex and it is made clear that Kenickie and Rizzo, arguably the film's most attractive (and coolest) characters, have had it at least once. Practically all of the characters smoke and the bottle of 'dessert wine' that Rizzo produces at Frenchie's sleepover is little more than a silly plot device. There is no hint that this is a wider indicator of teenage 'problem drinking' - it's no more than some silly teens at a party having a bit of a laugh with a bottle of cheap plonk. I find this pretty refreshing when I think about the airbrushed versions of adolescence and heavy morality we often get shown in teen movies and TV series these days.
As a teen film, it's not without faults of course. I love the anti-jock strand running through it, but the bullying of the comedy geek Eugene is a version of that annoying cool-kids-versus-geeks heirarchy common to teen flicks. I'll admit, as well, that Sandy's transformation at the end into sex-vamp, in tight clothes and bouffant hair, has a potentially dodgy message about changing to please your man. (Though I would prefer to read it more as a positive kind of sexual liberation - yes, I know, Pseud's Corner beckons...) But there are also some great little bits of female solidarity dotted abou the film. Pink Lady Frenchie takes cleancut Sandy under her wing from the beginning. At Frenchie's Pink Ladies sleepover, Marty shares her writing paper with Sandy and, thinking she's using it to write to a fella, gives her a little spray of perfume. During Rizzo's pregnancy scare, Sandy stops to ask her if there's anything she can do, despite the fact that Riz has been relentlessly taking the piss out of her from the start. A fleeting moment of bonding then takes place and Riz offers her a heartfelt, if awkward, 'thanks'. And, let's face it, 'There Are Worse Things I Could Do' is an absolute belter of a number, and quite possibly a full-on feminist classic.
But I accept that Grease as a whole is probably never going to be held up as some kind of feminist masterpiece. The best thing about it is its joyous frivolity, and ultimately, for me, the dancing. It is jam-packed full of classic dance scenes, from the T-Birds' routine on the rafters during 'Summer Nights', through to the big group number at the end during the (admittedly pretty silly) 'We Go Together'. And the high school dance scene, when Danny and Sandy are about to win the dance-off is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliantly choreographed and dramatic dance scenes in the history of cinema. Sandy and Danny show off their moves to the song 'Born to Handjive', as bad-girl Cha Cha prowls the edges of the dance floor, waiting for her chance to pounce, eventually cutting in, sidelining poor Sandy and winning the contest with Danny. Annette Charles and John Travolta are bloody amazing dancers and they make a seriously hot pair here.
So, yes, Grease is a bit of a silly film but it is a glorious celebration of sex, music, dancing and having fun. It tells us, in the words of Vince Fontaine, that 'it doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's what you do with those dancing shoes'. And quite frankly I think that there are worse mottos to live your life by.