Grease Isn’t The Family Friendly Film You Remember

Revisiting the pussy wagons, foam domes, and morally dubious life lessons.

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Grease The Musical is currently playing in Sydney. This is the Millsy-as-Travolta, colourful sing-song-fest we’ve been bombarded with TV ads about, which make the ’50s seem like a haven of first dates, drive-in movies, bobby-socks, archaic slang, and spontaneous sing-alongs.

I went to see it last week and it’s fun, but not in the backhanded way you’d use that term to describe a friend’s sloppy punk band. It’s just really fun. Millsy proves himself to be a triple-threat (singing/acting/Paris), and the entire cast effortlessly encapsulates all there is to love about the world of Grease. Despite being firmly promoted as a family-fun journey to a simpler time, Grease actually offers up some of the worst life advice since those Thalidomide adverts in the late ’50s.

Firstly, a few things to note if you are planning to see the theatrical version. If you are one of those types that has the entire film memorised beat-by-beat, Rain Man-style, then watching Grease The Musical will feel akin to when Rain Man’s baseball cards get shuffled out of order and he freaks out. You’ll be thinking (yelling), “That scene doesn’t come this early!”, “They skipped the diner scene!”, “Those two are in the wrong order!”, “Sunny is meant to say that!”, “Rizzo doesn’t say that!”; it’s a hard row to hoe.

To make this rattling experience more brutal is the fact that all the words are slightly different, even though the sentiment and trajectory is exactly the same. Have you seen early episodes of the US version of The Office, where they thesaurus the script in order to provide a slight point of difference? It seems much like that, although it is also possible they are, in fact, performing a word-perfect version of the original 1972 Broadway version, and Travolta and Newton-John adlibbed it up on-set like a pair of Hollywood upstarts. (On the plus side, it took the theatre version and its different delivery for me to realise they’d used the term ‘foam domes’ early in the film to describe girls at Rydell High who stuff their bras. Foam domes!)

Despite these thudding, sudden changes (in truth they are extremely slight unless you imbibe the film regularly and religiously), the original moral core remains intact, and it remains as gloriously rotten as ever. The songs, the love story, the dancing, the fashion, and the rose-coloured glasses through which the entire film was shot have all made this one of the most beloved films of our time. Young kids perform the songs at school, generations watch it together, and it sits in either the ‘family’ or ‘musical’ section in video stores, the two more benign areas of the sex-and-gore bomb-field that is a family outing to a regular video store (people still do that, right?). Yet, Grease contains a lot of morally dubious ‘lessons’ behind its Pleasantville front, and it’s about time we dusted off that VHS copy, ordered a single malt while the video rewinds, order another while we angrily fast-forward through the piracy warnings and outmoded ‘previews’ — wait, was that Kindergarden Cop? — and revisit Rydell High.

The moral of the entire film is ‘You need to change who you fundamentally are, in order to achieve happiness and get what you want.’

There’s a touching scene that serves as the final turning point of the film where Sandy is sitting alone, watching the love of her teenage life being furiously celebrated for winning a dangerous car race. It is amidst this glory that Sandy finally realises how silly she has been to hold steady to the lessons and guidance her Australian parents bestowed upon her, and that the only things holding her happiness back are her lousy virginity, unwillingness to drink or smoke cigarettes, stifled dress-sense, and pesky moral code. And so she finds the tightest, leather outfit in the greater Rydell district, heat-shrinks it a little, and slides it on. I assume she borrowed the fuck-off heels from Rizzo. Then she presumably spends an hour or so smoking cigarette after cigarette, because the next one we see her puffing onscreen is too graceful considering her poor, spluttering previous attempt.

Meanwhile, Danny is firmly entrenched in the jock world (well, he is wearing the jacket) and seems to be convinced this sudden change will win Sandy over. He is putting in the effort; he even wore gym shorts at one stage. When his friends come over and tease the shit out of him for wearing a Letterman jacket, he clearly hates how he looks and what he’s allowed himself to compromise (although, he did just put on a jacket), but he knows it needs to be done to win the love of his (suspiciously-stubbled) teenage life. They meet at the post-graduate carnival that every school throws for their outgoing seniors, are both shocked and thrilled by each other’s complete transformations, and begin declaring their primal ‘wants’ in song-form. It’s “electrifying”, and it ends in everyone living happily ever after: repressed, ticking time-bombs.

Teen pregnancy is a drag… on the guy

When you are, say, pre-13 or 14, you completely miss the entire pregnancy thread in Grease. It’s woven fairly heavily throughout the final half of the film and quite explicitly stated (albeit hidden behind clouds of ‘50s slang), but it also disappears quite quickly, like a lot of pregnancy scares do. Basically, Kenickie and Rizzo are getting hot and heavy in Kenickie’s new “ultramatic” ride, and Rizzo is clearly all about what is happening. It’s a major piece of machinery, after all (more on that later). The car gets rammed and Kenickie’s condom breaks — a condom he’d been carrying on his person since the 8th grade. They figure “fuck it”, continue having sex anyway because “I don’t want to die a virgin” (not the soundest reasoning, but quite realistic), and science happens.

Anyway, Rizzo discovers she is late, confides in that blabbermouth one Marty, and of course, news of it shoots through the drive-in faster than Danny Zuko in a T-bird racing Thunder Road for pink-slips. Kenickie hears the news, immediately flips, and confronts Rizzo. She tells him not to worry, and that it isn’t his, and the relief rushes through him faster than Danny Zuko in a T-bird racing Thunder Road for pink-slips. Obviously, although Rizzo is a bit of a stop-out chick, as evidenced in her touching stop-out chick anthem ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’, she is mostly all talk, and Kenickie soon realises it may just be his future-child, at which point he bumbles an offer of help, which could be read as “Let’s solve this problem together, honey.” At the end of the film when she realises it was just a scare, Kenickie doesn’t, for one second, hide his complete joy at this situation, literally lifting her off the ground, yelling, cheering, and quickly spreading the news that Rizzo isn’t about to ruin his T-birdin’ life anymore.

A teenage girl’s virginity is a thing to be mocked

“Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity,” begins the song Rizzo sings to openly mock Sandy in front of her new friend group. Rizzo is the popular girl in the popular group and all the other girls gleefully join in on the fun, so this scene wasn’t written to further Rizzo’s complex system of bullying and self-consciousness — it was simply to display the fact that Sandy doesn’t belong in the cool group because of such primness as coughing from a cigarette, not being able to guzzle cheap wine from a bottle like a train-hopper, and, worst of all, being a virgin.

The fact that Rizzo, moments later, literally climbs down a drainpipe to go and have sex shouldn’t be read into too heavily (she even suggests a threesome with Kenickie and Danny. Re-watch it, she really does). Elsewhere in the film, Putzie (blonde guy in the cool gang) and Eugene (nerd, secret breakout character) are both mocked for their perceived virginity, which makes this less about gender and more about complete horribleness, which is better, I suppose?

A car is a “real pussy wagon” in which a young guy will “be gettin’ lots of tit” (singular)

The ‘Greased Lightning’ scene is troubling mostly because your younger sister, older brother, and everyone in-between has sang this song in churches, school halls, and bedrooms. But once you take a closer look at the scene, you’ll release the entire thing is one big dick joke.

The car acts as a thinly veiled phallic symbol: during the song, the characters procure cling wrap from somewhere and wrap the car in it, and fluffy dice are shot into the sky as a subtle “get your rocks off” gesture. And the lyrics themselves make no bones about being about boning: “You know that ain’t no shit, we’ll be getting lots of tit”; “You know that I ain’t braggin’, she’s a real pussy-wagon”; “With new pistons, plugs and shocks, I can get off my rocks”; and “the chicks’ll cream” are all tossed off (yup) as if your mum and your younger sister aren’t sitting next to you watching a film that sat next to To Grandmother’s House We Go at the video store.

Grease The Musical is currently playing in Sydney, and begins a Melbourne run on January 2. Get all the info here.

Nathan Jolly is the Editor of The Music Network, Australia’s number one music industry magazine.