Last year a sing-a-long version of Grease came to downtown San Francisco, at the Metreon at Yerba Buena. I went with a few girlfriends on a weeknight; shockingly, we were pretty much the only ones there. All the better — the empty house allowed us to enter even more deeply into the parallel universe that is “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” We even got party favors on the way out: T-Bird magnets and Pink Lady pins.
It’s worn well, that movie. Rizzo’s digs at Sandy are still funny and her bravado still painful. Sandy’s wide-eyed virtue is still as endearing and irritating as ever. And Danny’s dumb posing is still dumb, caught as he is between The Girl and The Guys.
I was nine when my dad took me to see the movie when it came out in 1978. He must have also bought me the soundtrack record — which, by the way, ended up being the second-best selling album of that year, only losing the number one spot to the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever — because for a long while I spent most of my time creating choreography for just about every song. My favorites were “Summer Nights,” “Beauty School Dropout,” and “You’re the One That I Want,” and as I moved through the record my moves got more and more complex. (I never did master the hand jive, though.) I’d practice in the very same living room where the mariachis would perform three years later, facing the couch. Our cats, Bridget and Alan, often served as my perfunctory audience. At least once or twice I ran through a few of the routines for my parents, staring shyly at the floor the whole time.
It’s hard to know how to read Grease — or even whether it’s worth it to “read” it at all. Girl meets Boy. Boy screws it up and loses Girl. Both Boy and Girl decide they can’t live without each other and are willing to make a few simple cosmetic changes in order to reunite. Sandy trades her cardigan sweaters and poodle skirts for black leather hotpants, stilettos, and a bustier, while Danny dons a letter sweater and calls it good. Of course, when I was choreographing the soundtrack I wasn’t thinking about all this. The new Sandy dazzled me, even though I couldn’t exactly crack the code behind her transformation.
What I love about the movie is its tangy combination of world-weariness and innocence. A bunch of clearly not-high-school-age actors play a bunch of teenagers who haven’t a clue how to make a future for themselves. The characters don’t learn much: Rizzo’s relief at not being pregnant doesn’t translate to wisdom; Sandy’s rougher edges don’t translate to true, life-changing risks; and Frenchie’s disintegrated dream of beauty school doesn’t translate into something better.
The innocence part is that these characters don’t care that they don’t know anything. They don’t know that they should care. The film ends with all of them frolicking at the senior carnival, graduating into adulthood but acting like the kids they still are. And maybe it’s a perfect ending, really, because isn’t that exactly how it is, when you’re fresh out of high school?