Seen on the occasion of the film's 40th Anniversary.
Grease flattens the '50s into a cartoon – literally, in the opening credits – but it's also far grimier than its family-friendly reputation would suggest.
This film doesn't attempt to be outwardly subversive or satirical in the way of National Lampoon's Animal House or American Graffiti, two films made in and set in similar eras to this. Still, there's more to it than a nostalgic retreat from the more cynical 1970s to the allegedly simpler 1950s.
There’s the aforementioned griminess, toned down but still present from the stage version. There are historical winks like the high school principal announcing "Among you there may be a future[...] Vice-President Nixon.” There’s also the beginnings of an interesting social commentary.
T-Bird greaser Danny Zuko is surrounded by hyper-masculine signs - the hair, the comb, the jacket, the car - trapped in the archetype of the American teen. The period setting eases the audience into seeing how ridiculous this all is.
This archetype is constructed by television and advertising, which view this toxicity as merely a by-product of their business model.
TV, as personified in sex pest band show host Vince Fontaine (Edd Byrnes), trades in a youth-centred image of cool: the middle-aged waitresses at the Frosty Palace stare at the screen, transfixed by the dancing teens. The hot dog ad at the drive-in, juxtaposed behind Zuko during the number ‘Sandy’, sexualises food to sell it to the same demographic.
But as incarnated by John Travolta, Danny Zuko is dangerous because he's the epitome of non-threatening masculinity. He doesn't force girls into sex, although he might brag as if he does. He sings and dances to express his feelings. He has blue eyes and a pretty face. He's soft!
Likewise, Sandy and Rizzo are trapped in the internalised misogyny of the Madonna/whore complex. This is highlighted by Rizzo's songs: first mocking Sandy for her innocent, virginal persona ('Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee'); then lamenting her own reputation for being promiscuous ('There Are Worse Things I Could Do').
Olivia Newton-John's performance is fascinating - surrounded by over the top business from the rest of the cast, she's so low-key she's almost not present. She spends many of her scenes turned away from the camera. The result is that when she breaks into emotion and song, it's doubly heightened.
There's something timeless about her – in this all-American small town, even her Australian accent seems fantastical. Her gesture of solidarity to Rizzo towards the end of the film – that she's here for her, even if they haven't been great friends – is one of the most understated yet affecting moments in the film.
Even the often-criticised ending seems appropriate for this story of eternal teenagers (portrayed mainly by actors in their 30s) that plays out over a perpetual summer (it begins at the start of the school year and ends at the end of the school year, with no winter in between). The car, ‘Greased Lightnin’ itself, actually flies away, rejecting physics, denying and leaving behind the messy real world below.
Likewise, Sandy rejects the T-Bird/Pink Lady binary to become a female T-Bird. As only she has really come to understand and take agency over, this is all a fun-fair; it's all play acting; it's all a fantasy.