GREASE - Blu-ray review

...comes to life when Travolta and company are singing and dancing.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, John, Eddie, and Dean all provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
After success in TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter," a supporting role in "Carrie," and a starring role in a TV movie, "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," John Travolta hit the really big time with "Saturday Night Fever" (1977) and "Grease" (1978) back to back. In fact, he may never have been as big before or since, because his career took a nosedive in the '80s, resurrected by "Pulp Fiction" in 1996. From then until now, he seems to have alternated serious roles, villainous roles, heroic roles, and comedic roles, hoping perhaps to spice up his movie persona enough to keep audiences off guard. In any case, he has proven a resilient and diversely talented actor, singer, and dancer, as the ever-popular "Grease" so aptly demonstrates.

Producers Robert Stigwood and Alan Carr brought the long-running Broadway musical "Grease" to the screen with an adaptation by Carr and a screenplay by Bronte Woodard. It turned out to be a wise movie because the film was an instant success, and by now practically everyone has seen it or heard the songs. I doubt that most people had any idea Travolta could sing or dance until they saw him in "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease." Bringing in pop singing star Olivia Newton-John to play opposite Travolta was another stroke of either genius or luck. The producers even let her keep her Australian accent, the actress pretending she was a high school student newly arrived from Down Under.

Unlike so many modern musicals, though, this one has very little plot or characterization. Travolta is a supercool tough guy at school, Danny Zuko, who falls for Newton-John's sweet and innocent Sandy Olsson. But Danny, the leader of the T-Birds, doesn't want his buddies to know he's fallen for such a naive little girl. It's not much, the movie being mostly about the music; so if you're not into that sort of thing, don't bother. But, as I say, it's hard not to have run into it by now in any case. "Grease" is primarily a nostalgic, romanticized, fanaticized tribute to the 1950s, a gentle spoofing of the era, with a little parody of "West Side Story" along the way. Given the strong leads, some corny but cute song lyrics, and some zippy Fifties' style rock-and-roll music (which nevertheless pales compared to the best original music of the day, heard intermixed with the new material), the movie works well enough.

"Well enough" if it weren't so uneven. While most of the music is fine, the rest of the story and characters seem basically uninspired. It's all pretty slick and superficial, with only the cameo performances by stars of the Fifties giving the movie any serious life. For instance, Eve Arden plays Mrs. McGee, the Principal of Rydell High (a tribute to pop singer Bobby Rydell). Old timers will remember Eve Arden as everyone's favorite high school teacher (from radio and the big screen) in "Our Miss Brooks." Then there's Sid Caesar ("Your Show of Shows") as Coach Calhoun, who almost steals the show; Edd "Kookie" Byrnes ("77 Sunset Strip") as Vince Fontaine, a popular DJ come to judge a dance contest; Frankie Avalon as the "Teen Angel" in a dream sequence; Joan Blondell (yes, THAT Joan Blondell) as a waitress in one of her last screen appearances; Alice Ghostley and Dody Goodman and even the singing group Sha-Na-Na. Compared to these veterans, even the two stars seem to pale except in their musical numbers.

I also liked Eddie Deezen playing his usual dorky little Jerry Lewis character in the film, and Stockard Channing as the tough girl in school. But these roles are so shallow, they hardly count. I also liked the fact that true to Hollywood tradition, all the teenagers in the movie look like they're in their thirties. That's actually kind of fun. And, of course, we get a multitude of references to the Fifties like the mention of Doris Day, Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue, Pinky Lee, Eisenhower, Nixon, and the like. And what people old enough don't remember the basis for the movie's title, the hair oil every boy had to wear, his head slathered in Vasoline Hair Tonic, Brilliantine, or Brylcreem. "A little dab'll do ya"? Ha! A "little dab" was never enough for a lot of guys.

"Grease" comes to life when Travolta and company are singing and dancing, with "Greased Lightning" and the big finale the highlights of the show. Otherwise, the much later musical version of "Hairspray" was a more spirited send-up of the Fifties, with sharper songs, funnier lines, and better-developed characters. But it would never be as popular. Oh, well....

John's film rating: 6/10

The Film According to Eddie:
Originally a hit Broadway musical, "Grease" became a hit film musical in 1978 starring John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and Stockard Channing (TV's "The West Wing"). The movie cemented Travolta's rising star, and Newton-John's fame as a singer lent the project welcome authenticity. For some reason, the musical genre inspires mad affection from people who really dig them (I should know, for my sister's always belting one Broadway standard or another), and "Grease" must be one of the most-watched and most-adored film musicals of all time.

At the beginning of "Grease" we see Danny Zuko (Travolta) and Sandy (Newton-John) enjoy the final moments of their summer fling. He's about to start his senior year in high school, and she's going back to Australia. However, when the fall term begins, Sandy appears at Danny's Rydell High. Apparently, he never told her about his belonging to the "T" Birds, the local greasers, so he gives her the cold shoulder at school in order to maintain his reputation. Didn't you know? Greasers don't hang out with preppies.

"Grease" presents a very simple story about two young things trying to figure out a way to be able to have a romance without being stigmatized by their friends. My previous sentence sounds more serious than the film actually is; after all, we're not talking about an interracial relationship or a love between two persons separated by fundamentally, drastically different backgrounds. The movie charts Sandy's attempts to be cool and Danny's attempts to be more mainstream.

Of course, only in a movie are people allowed to be two extremes at once. By now, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Sandy can be a sexy rebel (as witnessed in the ubiquitous photos of Ms. Newton-John in tight-fitting black clothes). Danny shows his buddies that you can be tough and sensitive at the same time. Only in the movies can you eat your cake and have it, too.

The actors exhibit a great deal of energy in well-choreographed song-and-dance numbers, and there's also a great deal of physical humor as well. For example, there's a scene where Sandy gets out of Zuko's car, and he tries to follow her. However, she slams the door, hitting him in the groin, and he collapses. Travolta's face neatly expresses the pain and clumsy horror of being nailed where it hurts most.

Despite many reruns on TV, I had never actually seen "Grease" until watching it on disc for reviewing purposes. I admit that I enjoyed it a lot even though musicals are not normally my cup of tea. For me, the most surprising thing watching "Grease" is witnessing how well Mr. Travolta can dance. He's all over the place, twisting and turning his body until it seems like his skeleton was made of cartilage, not bone. The actor has opted to make action films like "Face/Off" in recent years, but it'd be a treat to see him in go-for-broke dancing again.

"Grease" isn't a great film, and it certainly is not in the same league as "Singin' in the Rain", "The Sound of Music", or even "Evita". However, "Grease" IS great fun, a romp filled with the kind of exuberance that we wish we could enjoy in our lives. Few people are ever as cool as Danny Zuko, and even if it were possible to attain his level of coolness, real life eventually forces us to grow out of being cool 24/7. "Grease" lets us inhabit "cool" every time we enter its world for two hours.

Eddie's film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Dean:
How many times has "Grease" been reviewed? How many millions of people have seen this film and want to really sit back and read another run-of-the-mill review about their beloved film? I'm sure if I sat down here and typed up a straight review, I'd say absolutely nothing that hasn't already been said a dozen times. Way back in my childhood, when "Grease" was in its initial release, or an early re-release, my older sister took my nephew Don and me to see it. I was about six years old and don't have any true memories of the film. Don and I are the same age, so we probably goofed off and got yelled at more than we actually watched the film. In a more recent re-release, I went to see the film in a theater. My girlfriend at the time loved the film, but she wanted to leave. Two times where I actually attended a paid screening and still, I can be considered a "Grease" virgin. So, instead of reviewing the film, here are musings and thoughts of a "Grease" virgin while watching the film.

The movie starts out with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John sitting on a beach. Sandy (Olivia), gets nailed in the face with a wave. I had a high school teacher that called her Olivia Newtron-Bomb. She sure was a bombshell back I the day, wasn't she? Anyways, it looks like these two crazy kids sure enjoyed their summer together and it seems Danny (Travolta) is trying to pressure her into something. Well, if I spent my summer with her and thought I'd never see her again, I would.

Now, we are off to high school. We have the T-Birds. Sonny (Michael Tucci) really doesn't look like a bad kinda dude. He doesn't seem like he belongs in a 'tough' group. Woah! Eddie Deezen. I love that guy. He is absolutely funny. Back to the T-Birds, Jeff Conaway sure looks familiar in the role of "Kenickie." I know I have not seen many films he was part of, but he sure has a familiar look. He and Travolta look like they could be real 'toughs,' unlike poor Sonny.

A little bit of trivia. Michael Biehn has a brief cameo in this film. Biehn is a great actor. He was awesome in both "Terminator" and "Aliens." James Cameron needs to get Biehn back to work.

I look at the Pinkies and I have one question. How can you consider these the kind of girls that the "tough" T-Birds would chase after? Frenchy and the other girl look like the kind of girls the T-Birds should be making fun of and ridiculing. I don't get it. I have a hard time believing these are "hot chicks." I've seen enough "Happy Days." They seem like nice girls with cigarettes. Put the smokes down darling.

Which brings me to my next point. How in the hell can any guy make fun of their friend when somebody as cute as Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) has feelings for him? I'd be patting any of my friends on the back and congratulating them for good taste and offering good luck. Yet, poor Danny must treat the lovely Sandy like a disease.

These kids are very old for high school. The leader of the "Scorpions" looks like he is in his mid thirties. What is he doing in Rydell? Maybe I'm being too hard on this classic film, but the casting seems like it was done more for dancing and singing talent than it was for believability. They did manage to hire Sid Caesar. Good move there. He is great as coach Calhoun. Danny still needs beaten by his friends for treating poor Sandy badly. Again, the friends should look to him as a hero and not a zero. Here comes a white car. I know this car eventually becomes "Grease Lightning," but it sure looks like a hunk of junk in its debut.

Buckey and Frenchy and the girls have invited Sandy over for a sleepover. Smoking and drinking and Sandy is really out of place. Sandy is still hot when compared to the others and she may be innocent, but there is nothing special about any of the other girls. The songs have been catchy so far, but this "Sandy Dee" song bores me. This scene makes me wonder why this film became such a hit.

The "Greased Lightning" song is catchy. John Travolta dances around like a fool. This movie is a musical, but for a bunch of tough guys, he surely is moving effeminately. I love the look of the car in the dance-number dream sequence. It is a shame that car wasn't used in the film as the main car.

What is the purpose of the Saran Wrap?

I have to admit, the scenes where John Travolta is trying out for a sport he can take part in is comedic gold. The scene he dribbles a basketball in is absolutely sidesplitting. Great stuff. They could have spent more time showing how bad Travolta's character was at sports. So far, this has been my absolute favorite part of the film. The baseball and wrestling parts were funny, too. These scenes almost make up for the sleepover.

A friend warned me about a scene about a beauty school dropout. Well, that pink hair is absolutely pink. I'm not sure what else I can say about it. I'm pretty sure that is Frankie Avalon in the musical number, but between this song and "Sandy Dee," I want to throw in some Pearl Jam and try to forget. "Hopelessly Devoted To You" was sung by the Australian beauty. I remember that song well from the radio. Honestly, I didn't know it was part of this film. That was a good song. This is a bad song. I've lost respect for Frankie Avalon.

The dance-off portion of the film showcases John Travolta's dancing prowess. I'm betting much of the reason for the success of "Grease" is due to Travolta's ability to dance. Sha-Na-Na was the band. I grew up listening to them due to my mom and sister.

Does the FBI really have technology to identify anybody by their bare behinds?

The big car-race sequence between the T-Birds and the Scorpions is very vanilla. The "Grease" theme song returns and the cars look great, but aside from a bumper mashing incident, an attempt at piercing tires and a small jump, nothing exciting happens as they race for pinks. The skidding turns looked good halfway through the race, but for being one of the big scenes in the film, it was very underwhelming.

I remember some of the carnival scenes from the movie. I'm sure when I was a kid, this was the best part. Kids love fairs and carnivals. I am starting to see why Mr. Pettis called Newton-John Newtron-Bomb. She looks incredible in black. Other than the cigarette. Thankfully, she put it out. Both songs here in the final scenes were great fun. The film has a very fitting end and Danny and Sandy can now be happy together and not get chastised by friends. Good times. "Grease" was about music, love and fun and the ending wraps them up nicely. And there was Dweezen!

There is the cool car. However, can somebody explain how it flies?

I'm no longer a "Grease" virgin. I've actually sat through and paid attention to the movie. My first attempt, I was too young to care. I wanted "Star Wars" and not "Grease." My second attempt was ended early by a girlfriend who discovered after we sat down that she was not going to be able to last the entire film. I do regret waiting so long to watch a classic.

Dean's film rating: 7/10

What looked pristine in the standard-definition edition looks a little less so under the closer scrutiny of high definition. The Paramount video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the film to disc, preserving its 2.35:1 aspect ratio and reproducing the colors brilliantly. However, the hues are also a little glossy, the definition only so-so, and detailing, especially facial detail, on the soft side. There is a reasonably clean screen, though, and just the merest touch of natural print grain to provide texture. What's more, black levels are excellent, contributing to the vividness of the hues.

A bigger disappointment than the rather average high-def picture is the even more ordinary TrueHD 5.1 audio. Despite the lossless encode, or maybe because of it, we hear all the shortcomings of the soundtrack. Mainly, we hear a raspy, pinched midrange, where dialogue often sounds nasal. Furthermore, there is very little surround activity unless one turns the volume up to the threshold of pain. The front-channel stereo spread is quite good, true, but there is hardly more than a whisper of musical ambience enhancement in the rear channels, with only the occasional voice, crowd noise, or sound effect thrown in. Nevertheless, bass, when needed, comes through deep and taut, so all is not lost.

This "Rockin' Rydell" Blu-ray edition of the movie contains the same bonus items found on the DVD edition, and again they are in standard definition. First up is a thirty-second introduction to the movie by director Randall Kleiser, followed by an informative audio commentary by Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch. Next, there's a "Rydell Sing-Along" where you can play any or all of the movie's songs with the words on screen. After that is the main documentary, "The Time, the Place, the Motion: Remembering Grease," twenty-two minutes of recent reminiscences by the cast and crew on the filming of the movie. Then, we get eleven deleted, extended, and alternate scenes totaling about ten minutes.

Following those bits, we get a series of interviews and featurettes: The "DVD Launch Party," fifteen minutes with the cast and crew in 2002; "Grease Memories from John and Olivia," three minutes; "The Moves Behind the Music," eight minutes with choreographer Patricia Birch; "Thunder Roadsters," five minutes with George Barris, the King of the Kustomizers, and his hot-rod creations for the movie; and "Grease Day" interviews with John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, and producer Robert Stigwood.

The extras conclude with four photo galleries ("Rydell High Year Book," "Production," "Première," and "Grease Day"); eighteen scene selections; bookmarks; a 1.78:1-ratio theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
It's seldom that three different DVDTOWN reviewers rate a film so much alike, but this is one of those times. All three of us saw "Grease" as a good, above-average film, giving it a 6 or 7/10 rating. I admit that I didn't like it quite as much as Eddie or Dean did, finding it too inconsistent for my taste, but there's no denying the charisma of the stars and the infectious nature of the song-and-dance numbers. It's no wonder director Randall Kleiser says it's "the highest-grossing musical of all time." There's a lot to like.


Film Value