On June 16, 1978, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John danced their way into theaters. The 110-minute adaptation of Grease, directed by Randal Kleiser, would become a summer box office draw and enduring TV staple. The Hollywood Reporter’s original movie review is below.
If you think that Saturday Night Fever has everything, wait until you see Grease. This superabundant Robert Stigwood/Allan Carr production, based on the long-running, Jim Jacobs/Warren Casey musical, throbs with the rhythms of the ‘50s, but it has the feel of now. While I can’t claim any special expertise on such dances as the Jitterbug, and others, their beat will be immediately recognizable by today’s disco devotees. Grease is like American Graffiti in its bridging of the generation gap through a Top 40s score and a plot that plays up the naivete of a more innocent era (which was still considered plenty dangerous by its elders, who were scandalized by Elvis the Pelvis).
Dominating the film is John Travolta, in effect repeating his “Fever” performance, but demonstrating again that his is a particularly charismatic screen personality. Under choreographer Patricia Birch’s inventive supervision, his dancing is better this time out. So is his singing, often in tandem with Olivia Newton-John. But these are pluses quite apart from the vulpine grin, the greasy-kid-stuff hairdo and the air of easy amiability that invests his persona. Travolta is a presence, as were Brando, Dean and Presley in their day. And in Grease, its makers use it to the maximum.
Only slightly less so is the blond, delicately featured Olivia Newton-John, already triumphant in that vast new world of rock concerts and records. She can tear the house apart with a number like “You’re the One That I Want” (with Travolta), and still project a youthful innocence and vulnerability totally in keeping with the character she has been asked to portray. She’s a kind of ‘70s Debbie Reynolds — and I project for her the same cinematic longevity, if she so chooses.
Plot isn’t exactly what Grease is all about: In fact, it’s really just an updating of that 1928 musical, Good News (as if directed by that forgotten regisseur of the ‘30s, Mark Sandrich). High school student Travolta had met Newton-John on summer holiday, fallen in love and, now that the holidays are over, expects never to see her again. But after boasting of his conquest to his pals, he discovers that she has been transferred to his school. Though aching inside, he has to maintain his macho image with his friends. First misunderstanding. Then he wins a dance contest, in her presence, with a former love-boat (Annette Charles). Second misunderstanding. And so it goes until, prodded by his love for the girl, Travolta wins a drag race in Los Angeles’ concrete river bottom and his track letter. Olivia falls into his arms. This musical bridges more than one generation gap. Its high school students seem more like college dropouts.
But what makes it work is its youthful vitality, the tremendous energy and imagination expended on its virtually wall-to-wall song and dance number. Patricia Birch, who choreographed the original Broadway production, is literally tireless in making everything work for camera — in which she is joined by the youthful Randal Kleiser, making his directorial debut in theatrical features. While his trickiness reminded me of Sandrich — as when he intercuts Travolta and Newton-John duetting on “Summer Dreams,” but to two separate groups of listeners — his exuberant camera moves have all the panache and style of Stanley Donen at his very best (as in The Pajama Game. Clearly, Kleiser is a talent to be watched — and nurtured. The visual rhythms that he builds to accompany the songs seem to rise out of the music, then take over on their own (although often curiously truncated, ending before the excitement they generate has been allowed a proper climax).
On the other hand, Kleiser, whose Peege and Portrait of Grandpa Doc have to be among the most moving short films ever produced, proves again that he is enormously effective with actors. Quite apart from his stars, he is adept at maneuvering such veterans as Eve Arden, Frankie Avalon, Joan Blondell and Edd Byrnes through their paces, as well as such relative newcomers as Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Didi Conn and Jamie Donnelly. He has a gift for unforced stylization (as in the “Greased Lightning” and “Beauty School Drop-Out” numbers), but can also sustain an unforced naturalism in his youthful cast for the purely expositional passages.
Grease looks marvelous, thanks to Bill Butler’s agile camera work (with takes that are often merely seconds long). John F. Burnett’s editing contributes importantly to the overall dynamic (and I can only conclude that the decision to cut back to plot before a musical reaches its climax lay outside his province). Bronte Woodard’s script is bright enough never to take itself too seriously. But the underlying strength of Grease is its music, the original score for the show supplemented by some Sha-Na-Na specials and songs by John Farrar and Louis St. John, all augmented by Dolby sound. – Arthur Knight