By David Speranza
I can’t speak for any adults at the time, but for those of us in our teens when the movie version of Grease hit theaters in 1978, it was more than just the latest in a line of summer-movie blockbusters (a concept that was still fairly new). Imagine, if you dare, two or three Twilight movies condensed into a single summer, with a hit soundtrack by Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. Grease—with its catchy, inexhaustible pop tunes—represented the crest of the 1950s nostalgia that had been coursing through the decade.
That phenomenon began with the original musical’s Broadway debut in 1972, drew encouragement from the success of 1973’s American Graffiti, and was rewarded with a sitcom laugh track in TV’s Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Even those of us born in the 1960s experienced a kind of once-removed nostalgia for leather jackets and doo-wop. (Or maybe we just wanted to be as cool as The Fonz or have a girlfriend as hot as Pinky Tuscadero.)
It all started with the music. In April 1978, two months before the movie’s premiere—and with the previous year’s Saturday Night Fever soundtrack still boogeying up and down the charts—the Grease soundtrack and its initial John Travolta/Olivia Newton-John duet, “You’re The One That I Want,” were released. The single, though a bit mysterious in its relation to the film’s storyline, was a supercharged pop confection that was fun to listen to and even more fun to learn and sing (especially Travolta’s burbling, cock-a-doodle-doo chorus). As it made its climb to #1 in the following month, its follow-up, “Grease,” was also released. Written by the then-ubiquitous Bee Gee, Barry Gibb, and sung by 1950s icon Frankie Valli, the disco-inflected title track eventually made its own way to the top spot. It took a bit longer to get there, but that only assured it of familiar company in the Grease-song pile-up that was to come.
Further priming the world for all things Grease-y were the converging trajectories of its two stars. Travolta, a TV idol (and part-time popstar) before achieving movie stardom with Saturday Night Fever, had already proved he could act and dance, not to mention look great in white bell bottoms. Now he reaffirmed singing among his talents, along with the ability to sport a pompadour and muscle tee. Newton-John, meanwhile, had been crooning country rock hits for much of the decade, infiltrating our brainpans with such wispy confections as “Let Me Be There,” “I Honestly Love You,” and “If You Love Me (Let Me Know).” She was the Taylor Swift of her day—tall, thin, blond, and as goody-two-shoes as only country stars can be. That would make it all the more thrilling when her meek, dishwater-dull character Sandy transformed into the stiletto-wearing biker chick who proclaimed, “Tell me about it . . . stud,” at movie’s end. Not until Darth Vader’s “I am your father” would there be a more revelatory movie moment. (In fact, that scene single-handedly redefined Olivia’s image and rejuvenated her music career.)
The stars, then—metaphorically and otherwise—were aligned. With kids out of school and the country eager to be entertained by a Hollywood-musical version of its past, the little $6 million movie premiered in June and became a massive hit, temporarily halting the belief that movie musicals were dead (a belief resurrected with the dual crib deaths of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Can’t Stop The Music).
And the hits, as they say, kept on comin’. With “You’re The One That I Want” and “Grease” still in heavy rotation, there followed the rollicking duet “Summer Nights” (reaching #5), Olivia’s solo ballad “Hopelessly Devoted To You” (#3), and finally Travolta’s sweaty, innuendo-filled “Greased Lightning” (a relatively low #47). The airwaves were so flooded with the movie’s soundtrack, I remember spending nights twirling the knob on my portable radio, traversing the AM band in search of the next Grease tune. It was rare to go more than a few minutes without finding one, each discovery a triumph—especially if it was the more elusive “Greased Lightning.” (I never did own the soundtrack, which was a double album and too expensive for my eighth-grade budget.) It became a race to find each song as close to its beginning as possible; meanwhile landing on a track during its last verse—or worse, final fadeout—brought a terrible pang of loss. But it also meant that that particular station could be passed over until the next cycle . . .
Each song conjured up something different, from the romantic longing of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” to the playful one-upmanship of “Summer Nights” to the suggestive delights of Olivia’s bared shoulders in “You’re The One That I Want.” I sang along with each verse, doing my best to decipher every lyric (not always successfully), imitating the precise inflections in each part, from the byplay of the peanut gallery in “Summer Nights” (“Tell me more, tell me more—did you get very far?”) to Travolta’s agonized falsetto harmonizing in the song’s finale. Aside from going back to see the movie again and again (which all of us certainly did), it was the only way to revisit those characters and that happy, colorful world . . .
Like all summers, that one eventually gave way to others, and more than a decade later I moved to Prague to immerse myself in a new culture. One of my early habits there was listening to Czech radio—switching from one station to the next, trying to get a fix on that country’s devilishly complex language. It was spring of 1994 and it seemed like the Cranberries and Kylie Minogue were on every other station. But on one particularly lonely night in that post-Communist land so far from home, a random twist of the dial conjured up two voices I’d nearly forgotten: John and Olivia, singing “Summer Nights.” With the very first “Tell me more,” I was transported, a grin stretching across my face so wide it reached across 16 years—and thousands of miles—to bring together my past and present selves. I was 14 again.
It seemed impossible, and yet I soon discovered it wasn’t unusual. Most Western music, it turned out, had been considered too “subversive” during the black-is-white Communist era. But some tunes were let through. Among those Big Brother deemed harmless were songs by Queen, Frank Zappa, and . . . the soundtrack from Grease. Which meant that the same music embraced by 1970s America for its nostalgic allure was now serving a similar function for millions of Eastern Europeans—many of whom found themselves looking back on their simpler, pre-capitalist childhoods with a wistful, if ambivalent, note.
Or at least that’s how I chose to think of it. As the music played, I stood up from my chair, summoned my best falsetto, and joined Danny and Sandy for one more remembrance of those distant summer nights.