Throwback Thursday: Grease is the Original High School Musical

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

It’s that time of year again—a lot of folks are heading back to school. Teachers, admin staff, students, nerds, dorks, geeks, athletes, rebels, burnouts, faders . . . pretty much any clique you can think of. I’m actually at the point that I don’t remember huge cliques from my school days as they are portrayed in popular media. Sure, there were definitely groups based on interests, but there was also a lot of crossover in those groups. Maybe I was just lucky in that because of theater, choir, and my actual classes I was able to interact with all of the different subsets. There may have been assholes and bullies, but each group had its fair share of those. It wasn’t relegated to one particular clique.

But I digress. Popular culture has shown us that one group can’t interact with another group, otherwise it’s total anarchy. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in the cool greaser trying to win the heart of the plain Jane in 1978’s film version of the stage musical Grease.

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The 1978 equivalent of Photoshop for Grease‘s theatrical poster.

I probably don’t need to recap the plot more than I did above, but for anyone late to the party: we have Danny (John Travolta) trying to be cool as the head of the T-Birds, a gang in the loosest definition of the word, while also pursuing the wallflower from Australia, Sandy (Olivia Newton-John). Of course, Sandy also wants to be cool and fit in, so while Danny is trying to pursue the “square” route of becoming a jock, Sandy has to figure out what she’s going to do to shake things up. Most of the cast are supposed to be seniors in high school, but when their median age is about 25, that’s a bit hard to find realistic. Stockard Channing as Rizzo, one of the Pink Ladies—the female gang whose sole purpose seems to be to date the guys from the T-Birds (and yes, I actually typed that)—was actually the oldest in the cast at 33. Newton-John was 28 at the time, while Travolta surprisingly clocks in as one of the younger cast members, at 23. The real reason for casting older is due to child labor laws: as the younger you are, the less time you can spend working. And of course the trend of not casting age appropriately for high schoolers was not new when Grease hit the screen: other examples include Kim Darby in the original 1969 True Grit, who played a 14-year-old at age 21, and James Dean as a high schooler in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause at age 24. Still, Grease definitely stands out as having an old cast across the board. It’s no wonder as teens we try to act and dress older; we’re inundated with the idea that we should be older and more mature. Luckily, some of us still strive for the occasional bout of immaturity.

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They may be old, but they’re still coooooooool.

Besides the main plot, there’s a number of subplots involving the various members of the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, from alternative education (beauty school) to who’s taking whom to the big televised dance contest, a drag race (those were all the rage in the ’50s), a pregnancy scare (brilliant, heartbreaking, and empowering thanks to Channing), and making sure everything gets buttoned up by the end-of-the-year fair. Because of course, all high schools bring in huge theme-park rides for graduation. It might not be realistic, but it does give us the Shake Shack, so realism be damned.

Sandy and Danny dancing with each other in the Shake Shack fun-house attraction

Who cares about realism when you can have this dance number?

Since we’re talking about the lack of realism, this is also a musical, so the characters randomly break out into songs describing what’s going on or what their feelings are. On a good note, some of the chaff songs and bits from the stage show have been jettisoned, and the script overall has been tightened up for the transition to film. The songs are a lot of fun, and catchy, and it should come as no surprise that on its 20th anniversary it was re-released in theaters as a sing-along. It is now 38 years old, so I’m sure they will release it again any day now. If you hate musicals, you should probably stay away. But of course, if you love musicals, you’ve probably already seen Grease, and you probably love it. Even the car flying away into the sunset after the boy gets the girl.

Sandy and the Pink Ladies happy and singing

Not a pic of a flying car, but I give you “women having fun during a musical number.”

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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