Grease is not a good movie. Grease is not a particularly good musical either. By any ostensible measure of quality Grease is average at best, and that’s being generous. It is poorly structured, poorly plotted, and poorly made… and yet there is something undeniably infectious about it.
Just look at the showstopping “Greased Lightning” to see what I mean. I use the word showstopping because it’s a wonderfully cheesy musical set-piece, akin to Gene Kelly singing in the rain in Singin’ in the Rain. I also use the word showstopping because it literally stops the movie dead in its tracks. There’s no reason for “Greased Lightning” to exist in the context of the movie. The song doesn’t progress the plot in any meaningful way and we don’t learn anything new about the characters either.
“Greased Lightning” is a superficial song in a movie that often appears superficial (that 50s nostalgia always feels skin deep). It’s just an excuse for Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and his fellow greasers— called the T-Birds— to dance around a car singing about how cool it’s going to be when they have fixed it up, and how cool they are going to be driving it around town. But it is that superficiality that’s key to understanding what makes Grease so good.
Halfway through “Greased Lightning” Danny slides under the car and when he comes back out, the room has changed around him. No longer is he in a grimy garage, no longer is the car a barely-functioning bomb, no longer are he and T-Birds dressed in oil-slicked jumpsuits. Now everything is pristine and shiny, everything is cool. We are seeing what they want to be rather than what they are.
The opening credits— a showcase of classic animation accompanied over which the theme song by Frankie Velli plays— is all about image. We see Danny and fellow T-Bird Kenickie (Jeff Conaway) gel and comb their hair until it’s perfect. Rizzo (Stockhard Channing) tries on a turtleneck before deciding it makes her neck look too long. They all tailor themselves to look less like who they are and more like who they aspire to be.
This fixation with image should not come as a surprise, Grease is a movie about high schoolers after all (although you would be forgiven for forgetting that considering all the “teenagers” are played by adults in their late 20s or early 30s). Grease shows us how far the characters go to maintain their image, and then endeers them to us by letting them they fail.
The story of Grease (what little there is) focuses on Danny and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John). When the movie begins, they are at the end of a summer romance. They part ways thinking they will never meet again only to end up at the same school. Danny and Sandy are still in love in the way only teenagers can be— desperately, dramatically, and totally— but Danny’s Greaser image makes being with the preppy Sandy difficult.
Grease is less a movie and more a tapestry of people attempting and failing to maintain their image, all of which is loosely held together by now-iconic musical numbers. It’s relatable, we have all been teenagers who have tried to be slicker, smarter, and sexier than we are, only to fail in spectacular fashion. That relatability combined with the sheer fun of the music makes Grease far greater than the sum of its parts.
Yes, Grease should not work. It lacks narrative direction, the structure is muddled, the pacing is a mess, the values it promotes are questionable at best, and the musical numbers frequently stop the movie in its tracks (looking at you “Beauty School Drop Out”).
Despite all that Grease works. It’s been Forty years since Grease was first released in theatres and it’s still a classic. To this day we know the lyrics to all the songs because we can’t help but relate to the emotion in them. As Frankie Velli sings in the opening credits:
“Grease is the time, it’s the place, it’s the motion,
Grease is the way we are feeling”
When it comes to feeling, it doesn’t get much better than Grease.