A boy, a girl, the breaking surf, some fumbled attempts at automobile lovin’, a hand-jive contest, a lycra-clad makeover, and a dozen of the greatest songs you’ve ever heard. With those raw ingredients, I present the latest installment of EW’s Summer Blockbuster month. Because we are “Hopelessly Devoted” to Grease, the first movie musical on this list takes the No. 18 slot. So let me tell you about it, studs.
We live in times fueled by a collective passion for nostalgia. Well before our nostalgia covered up a national snarkiness, though, Grease set the template with its saucy yet affectionate look back at another era (much in the way American Graffiti did five years earlier). It’s there – in that delicate place that shows fondness that’s not maudlin or naïve – that Grease has found its staying power over the last 36 years. Grease is 110 minutes of tightly-packed musical goodness, so effervescent Vi should serve it up with the Dogsled Delights at the Frosty Palace.
For starters, the deck is stacked with stellar triple-threat performances anchored by easy-on-the-eyes stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as teen loves Danny and Sandy. Their bands of merry misfit friends – the T-Birds, led by no-goodnik Kenickie (Jeff Conaway, who’d starred as Danny in the same-name Broadway musical on which Grease was based), and the Pink Ladies fronted by sassy softy Rizzo (Stockard Channing) – provided invaluable back-up, especially in the instantly iconic opening number “Summer Nights.” Heck, even stock nerd Eugene (Eddie Deezen) has a few scene-stealing moments. And Lorenzo Lamas is in it. This movie has everything.
What’s more, the music was radio-ready in a way that most movie musicals aren’t (more on that below). A nice balance between clever and catchy, sweetly straightforward harmonies and nonsensically addictive (“We go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong/ Remembered forever As shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom”)
And it goes without saying that the themes of the film are timeless: Young love, growing up, teen rebellion, and what a hussy Cha Cha DiGregorio is. It’s a story that seems simple at first, but Grease keeps giving hundreds of views later.
And now a little section I like to call “Tell me more! Tell me more!”…
Release Date: June 16, 1978
Box Office: $188 million domestic ($8.9 million opening weekend); $394.9 million worldwide
Grease ruled the 1978 box office, a solid $25 million above Superman. Yes, children, there was a time when a movie musical could outperform a comic book-inspired flick. (Though, to be fair, Superman opened in December, so it was only in theaters for a couple of weeks in 1978 proper, and it ultimately went on to earn $300 million globally). It certainly didn’t work against Grease that America was hot for Travolta, who’d just broken out six months earlier with Saturday Night Fever. Despite losing its opening-weekend battle with Jaws 2, Grease rose to the top of the heap the following week and stayed there for 14 weeks.
The Competition: You already know about Jaws 2 (which ended up being 1978’s seventh highest-grossing film, if you’re keeping score). Outperforming the shark show was National Lampoon’s Animal House, which opened June 1, and was the only film between June 25 and Oct. 8 to break Grease’s streak (if only for a single week), and ultimately landed third in the year’s top-earning films. (It’s also a movie you might see again in this series, so keep checking back!) A few other strong performers that came later that summer – namely, Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait (June 28, 1978’s No. 5 film) and the Chevy Chase-Goldie Hawn rom-com Foul Play (July 14, No. 13) – but they couldn’t catch up with “Greased Lighnin’.”
What EW Said: “Never underestimate the power of catchy tunes, Travolta’s hips, and a sweet-yet-smutty script.” B+ —Mandi Bierly
Cultural Impact Then: You can never understate the cultural influence of the movie that made “p—y wagon” a thing. But seriously, Grease instantly embedded itself in the pop-culture lexicon in way that its musical-theater source material was never really able to. It also vaulted already-famous Travolta and Newton-John into the A-list stratosphere (not to mention forged a friendship that would later give us this glorious trainwreck).
The soundtrack was an instaclassic, ironically bested on the annual Billboard Top 200 Albums chart only by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. (It was Travolta’s year, y’all.) Four of the tracks were major chart hits: Frankie Valli’s “Grease” went platinum, “Summer Nights” was gold certified, “You’re the One That I Want” topped the Billboard Hot 100, and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” reached No. 3 before scoring an Oscar nomination. Speaking of which, Grease also scored five Golden Globe nods and picked up four People’s Choice Awards, including one for Channing. There are worse things it could do, is what I’m saying. (Well, I guess if you consider Grease 2 – and we have to, I suppose – maybe it did?)
Cultural Saying Power: As Jennifer Armstrong noted in her review of the first Grease DVD release (there have been several since), “The enduring appeal of the teenybopping musical spawned a knock-off sequel, a Broadway revival, and countless high school productions (not to mention setting the formula for countless teen flicks since).” Let’s just say this: If you’ve never karaoked “You’re the One That I Want” in your life, then you haven’t truly lived. More to the point, if you’ve never karaoked “You’re the One That I Want” in your life, what rock have you been living under?
It’s no surprise the Grease remains the top-grossing live-action movie musical of all time. Nor that the film was re-released on its 20th anniversary and has been countless times (though none of those editions have yet to include that elusive Pink Lady jacket Mandi requested in her review above). Grease’s critical approval hasn’t waned, either. It was slotted at No. 20 on AFI’s list of Greatest Movie Musicals, as well as staking the No. 21 spot on EW’s ranking of 50 Greatest High School Musicals. And the film’s ability to revive the original Broadway musical that inspired it has paid out major dividends, as it echoes through high school hallways across America.There are probably at least five productions in progress even as I type this sentence. And they’re singing this: