Grease 2: A Loving Defense

With the dawn of the 1980s also came a sudden popularity boom for the 60s, specifically for 60s music. While one can easily track it in the pop charts, this trend eventually found its way bleeding over into the movies. I’ve spent some time trying to track where this nostalgia sprang from, and although I’ve come to no definitive answers, I like to point to Grease as perhaps not the start of the trend (American Graffiti‘s success was five years prior), but definitely one factor in its solidification. Starting off as a well-received stage musical that eventually made its way to the silver screen, Grease sought to rekindle the flame of the previous decade after the fact, detailing a fairly straight-forward high school romance tale amidst a flurry of retro-sounding musical numbers. It’s a common misconception that this is an homage to the 50s – although passing references to signposts like Elvis and drive-in theaters carry connotations of 1950s suburbia, the action of the film takes place in 1959 when both of these topics were still at their peak. Thus, the film follows what has since become recognized as a twenty-year cycle of nostalgia, wherein audiences collectively decide to give the spotlight to pop culture artifacts of the previous generation, roughly twenty years aged.

The appeal of Grease, therefore, sprang from both an older audience’s revisiting of familiar relics of their upbringing, as well as a younger audience’s romanticization of the appealingly alien past. Grease even prides itself on subverting and demystifying certain stereotypes of the seeming innocence of the period’s high school atmosphere, with scenes in classrooms and malt shops strung in with talk of sex, smoking, drinking, teen pregnancy, and gang-related antagonism. All of this – sealed in a tight package complete with catchy songs and attractive leads – have led many to recognize Grease as the ultimate nostalgia trip film musical.

All hell broke loose, of course, when the idea for a sequel began to come into fruition. Where Grease affirmed itself as a signposted representative of early 60s nostalgia as a whole, Grease 2 is mostly illustrative of the bastardized attempts of the 80s to try and fall inevitably short of recapturing the magic of the era. Released in 1982 following a sloppy filming schedule, including a half-completed script and frequent cuts and recasting, Grease 2 barely made back its $11 million budget upon release. This cost first-time director Patricia Birch (who also choreographed the film and its predecessor) any future filmmaking credits, and the film is widely renown as among the worst films of all-time. But for what reason? Certainly there are worse movies out there, and there are definitely worse sequels. It seems that the negativity surrounding this film – not just in its box office performance, but in critical consensus and overall reputation – could be almost directly blamed on its assumed expectations to be just as fun and memorable as the previous film. In its attempts to recapture the instant magic of the first GreaseGrease 2 is widely viewed as a lazy retread on familiar grounds with bad writing, dull characters, and an overall uninspired narrative.

Alternately, there’s also a strong case for it actually being the superior of the two. There has been a surge of reappraisal for Grease 2 recently, and I have fallen in this camp since the first time I watched the sequel the whole way through a few years back. The premise for Grease 2 is probably best explained in relation to its similarities and differences to the precursor. After a whirlwind summer romance, two ambitious teens – the sweet Australian Sandy Olsson and the tough-as-nails greaser Danny Zuko – must now try to overcome the ultimate obstacle of their love: high school. In the end, through a number of peer pressures from their tight circle of friends, the film ends with the iconic image of Sandy clad in a leather leotard, stomping out a cigarette shortly before the two fly off into the sunset in a red convertible.

Grease 2 is often described as a gender-swapped retelling of Grease – but this only tells half the story. The timeline more or less assumes itself within the same universe as its predecessor, so we’re right back to the setting of Rydell High in 1961, two years after the events of the first Grease. The high school cliques in this film are softer than the strictly defined jocks, nerds, and cheerleaders of the first film, but the T-Birds and Pink Ladies still reign front-and-center. Only this time, the foreign exchange student is a shy, intelligent teenage boy from England named Michael (written in as Sandy’s cousin), who becomes instantly enamored with the feisty leader of the Pink Ladies, Stephanie. The narrative’s major thread follows Michael’s journey through his first year at Rydell, with his end goal being the conquest of Stephanie’s heart. Due to the ridiculous code in which Pink Ladies could date only T-Birds, Michael learns to ride a motorcycle and dons an anonymous Cool Rider persona in an attempt to impress and eventually woo Stephanie in his direction.

And there you have it. This is one of the refreshing cases in a romantic-comedy where the male lead must inconvenience himself to win the heart of his desired.  This is an especially welcome change considering how lacking in dynamism Sandy and Danny’s relationship was, a major disadvantage of the first film. They don’t seem to make much of an effort for each other, and their plights and arguments are just as petty as one would expect from enamored high schoolers. There’s even a scene where Danny’s perverted pushiness at a drive-in theater leads Sandy to leave him stranded, which is apparently enough of a case for the remorseful (read: whiny) ballad “Sandy”. Eventually, after all the ups and downs, Sandy decides to shed her stuffiness and metamorphose into the sexed-up vixen of his fantasies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with her decision, but the film’s prescription of Sandy’s transformation as the resolution to the ebb and flow of the narrative’s conflict is lazily sexist.

I have watched the first Grease at least a dozen times through my life and have fairly recently come to the conclusion that I just don’t enjoy it. I don’t like the characters, which makes it all the more difficult to care about their trifling dilemmas. Grease 2 improves upon this. For one thing, Michelle Pfeiffer makes for a much stronger female protagonist than Olivia Newton-John. She simply exudes coolness with mere gestures and gazes; certainly not too shabby for a debut film performance. Her shining moment lies in the musical number “Cool Rider”, in which she describes to Michael the kind of guy she truly desires, namely “a devil in skin-tight leather with hell in his eyes”. Right away, one gets the sense that she wouldn’t be caught dead lowering her standards for someone undeserving of who she is and what she can give. The challenge for Michael, then, comes in growing to become the type of guy she craves, and definitely not in convincing her to become someone she’s not.

Stephanie’s backstory also includes her rocky relationship with her arrogant ex-boyfriend Johnny, leader of the T-Birds. Although the dating rules between Pink Ladies and T-Birds are sure to cause a few eye rolls, it’s hard to deny that the film is at least critical of this. The heavy-handed presumption is that Johnny is a bit of an antagonist in this tale. His loudness and unfaltering jealousy serves as an antithesis to Michael’s subdued charm.  Moreover, while it’s made pretty clear that Stephanie and Johnny have no chemistry at all, practically every scene between her and Michael – both in and out of Cool Rider getup – suggests a budding relationship that grows pretty organically. When the reveal is made clear at the film’s resolution, Stephanie is notably satisfied in the recognition that she now gets “two for the price of one”. Her character could be written off by some as one with high standards, but the truth is that she comes to appreciate and love Michael not only because he went through the trouble of becoming who she wants, but also because he is a genuinely good person, with a heart big enough to grant him the willpower to do so.

Outside of the love story (certainly the film’s biggest strength), the sequel is certainly a whole lot campier than the original Grease. Where one could make the case that the T-Birds in the original musical were aimed to be the epitome of early 60s rebel cool, the T-Birds in Grease 2 are pretty explicit parodies of this. The original gang’s musical number in the first film, “Greased Lightnin'”, suggests with little to no irony that fast cars will get them laid. In Grease 2, their number is “Prowlin'”, which seems at least somewhat aware with their absurd suggestion that the best place to pick up chicks is at the “grocery store”. Additionally, the “Reproduction” scene is often noted as one of the film’s most memorable moments (for better or worse), and it would be an absolute crime to not mention it here. Led by a hilarious comedic turn from Tab Hunter as an uptight substitute teacher, it’s exactly what one would expect from an exaggerated musical representation of a collection of hormonal teenagers in a sex ed class. It totally blew me away the first time I watched it and it’s the one scene I always find myself revisiting every time I remember it exists.

The rest of the musical numbers, however, could only be described as painfully average. The opening number, “Back to School Again”, features The Four Tops, but not even this can save its formulaic dullness. “Score Tonight” juxtaposes sex with bowling, but doesn’t sound nearly as fun as this would suggest. “Do It For Our Country” details a T-Bird’s seduction of a Pink Lady under false pretenses and is probably the film’s lowest moment. The music in the film’s second half is especially boring, and it’s easy to see how one would come out of the movie feeling numbingly underwhelmed by the absolute downer of a closing number, “We’ll Be Together”.

Still, I stand confident in the stance that this sequel stands head-and-shoulders above the original. The original Grease is just plain mean-spirited from start to finish, while Grease 2‘s suggests at least some semblance of growth and an air of optimism that punctuates even its most damning moments. While the first Grease is involved in creating as positive a nostalgic experience as possible, it is also weighed down by the patriarchal standards and double-standards of which it remains pretty uncritical, for the most part. Alternately, Grease 2 makes these double-standards a much more integral part of the plot, in that it is an obstacle that our characters must overcome in order to achieve proper agency and happiness. If Grease is a film for men, Grease 2 is a film for women, which automatically makes it so much more fulfilling for this humble viewer.

And even if this actually does have all the makings of an objectively “bad” film, there’s just so much about its personality that appeals to me on a personal level. Bringing back Didi Conn in a reprisal of her role as Frenchy, my favorite character from the first Grease, is a great way to get on my good side. “Cool Rider” is probably the single best song from either of the two films, and I even catch myself singing “Girl for All Seasons” in the shower on occasion.There are several great examples of the female gaze in which the camera lingers over Michael’s face for several seconds, highlighting his undeniable good looks – this further kept up during his leather-clad rides atop his motorcycle. And I absolutely live for the moment when Pink Lady Paulette, played by Lorna Luft, speaks up to a no-good greaser with, “I may not be the classiest chick in this school, but I’m the best you’re ever gonna get – so take it or leave it!”. At the risk of being corny, I’d say that this same statement could apply to Grease 2 itself – and I’ll take it!

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Ack!

Well, folks, as the ubiquitous artist and philosopher Britney Spears would say, “Oops! I did it again!”. It’s been a full month since my last post – a music review of one of my very favorite pop songs – and it’s pretty clear to see that Films Like Dreams has hit a bit of a rough patch. I’ve made goals and promises I’ve failed to keep and the end result has left the vitality of this site hanging in a bit of a metaphorical limbo.

At this time, I should probably give a bit of an update of what’s been going on with me lately. A nice, shiny promotion at my real-life job has me working pretty much full-time – and sometimes a little more, since we’ve recently found ourselves a tad understaffed. As a result, I’ve sadly had less free time to watch movies than I had before. Even though I find myself watching movies in a theater more often than I ever have before, home viewing has become significantly rarer these days. Through the months of April, May, and (so far) June, I have failed to keep up the movie-a-day goal I’ve so effortlessly managed the previous five years. As the end of April deadline for my long-running monthly recap started to approach, this failure to watch (what I see as) enough movies led me to decide to conflate this month with the next. The real pickle began to ripen once it became clear that I would also fall short in this  proceeding end goal.

To be honest, these monthly recaps simply stopped being fun a long time ago – for about a year now, it’s felt like I’ve been doing them out of mere necessity and not because I genuinely wanted to complete the task. It’s gotten to the point where they feel more like a chore than anything else – which is definitely not what I want this blog to become. Therefore, I have decided that these monthly recaps will come to an end, effectively immediately.

So, what else has been occupying my time lately? Well, even though the One Random Single a Day challenge has pretty much imploded upon itself and become  full-on failure (well, not really… a little over 100 reviews written in less than half a year ain’t bad!), I’ve still been spending most of my free time with music-related stuff. I have been trying so hard to keep up with all the latest music releases, and for the most part I’ve been pretty successful. And in regards to the pop music world specifically, I’ve warmed up to a nice weekly schedule for myself, wherein I check the updated Hot 100 charts as they are published online every Tuesday and keep track of what’s rising, what’s falling, and what is on track to become among my most and least favorite hit singles this year. I won’t let any sort of cat out of the bag at this moment, but I will say that there’s bound to be some pretty interesting stuff on my end-of-the-year lists.

The most prominent challenge I’ve encountered, though, has been the challenge I’ve granted myself to listen through each one of the Now That’s What I Call Music! compilations (1-62). It initially started out as something to do out of mere intrigue and boredom, but I soon found them to be a pretty fascinating time capsule of the shifts and changes undergone by pop music since the dawn of the 21st century. Most of the biggest hits of the past 17 years found  warm welcome in my eardrums once again, including many that I had almost completely forgotten about.

I have very recently completed this NTWICM! challenge – but I’m not finished with it yet. At this time, I am working on a monster blog post where I rank all the releases by the most essential to the least, with much of my own personal tastes definitely factoring into it. It is probably one of the most ambitious projects I have taken on, and even though it’ll take me a lot of work to figure out a satisfying ranking – as well as writing the whole damn thing out – I am really excited to share this end product with everyone once it finally does reach its conclusion.

And even though it’s been quite a long time since my last Billboard challenge post, I do want to stay on track to complete it! I swear!! So I’m going to start chipping away at writing about a few songs here and there from the next year’s Hot 100 (1982), and we’ll see where we can take it from there. So keep an eye out for that post as well.

But what else does the future hold for this site?? Truthfully speaking, I really don’t know. As I said, certain challenges and blog posts that seem exciting at first often turn out to be quite a bore once I jump into the thick of it. It’s really frustrating as someone who really, really strives to find a strong vision for themself and share this vision with a loyal audience. I have yet to write anything that is really worth remembering, and while I love seeing other wonderful writers out there find their own success in their own ways, I can’t help but feel a tinge of regret that my writing will never be quite as good. As I said, I’ve held onto this site for about four years, and I’ve been a semi-active member in various social media spheres for a little longer. If no one has told me yet that my words have touched their heart or mind, who’s to say that this will ever happen?

Then again, that may just be the cynical side of my brain speaking again. I beat myself up about so much everyday and I wish I could just stop this and think positively! So, the positive spin on this is that I’ll be making posts on this site for myself and myself only. I’ll share things like lists and reviews, but if it’s nothing particularly remarkable, I’ll keep it for myself to publish here and for others to stumble upon as it may occur. This very post will be an example of such. Sharing my own posts have given me some unrealistic feelings of what to expect, as well as negative feelings of being let down when it doesn’t get a single other share or comment. Nothing I say is special – I know I’m not a very talented wordsmith and the thoughts and opinions I possess are basic as fuck. I’m not funny, smart, thought-provoking, or all that special from anyone else around here. I’d rather all the attention go toward those who rightfully deserve it, as any positive reactions I’m bound to get will probably just be from those who feel sorry for me for some reason.

Whoa. I really need to tone down the negativity and self-loathing. I’ll backtrack a bit.

So additionally, the huge elephant in the room has become the focus of the blog itself. Despite having held onto the name Films Like Dreams for something around four years at this point, it’s very clear that the site has taken a remarkable shift toward music reviews. Films Like Dreams has become a remarkably misleading title for the page, which undoubtedly makes it awkward for my trying to advertise the damn thing. Although I hold a particular amount of fondness for the name I have clung onto for all this time, there’s no denying that a change is in order. I can’t yet say how soon or late this will take place, but don’t be surprised if these changes come underway with little to no preceding announcement.

I don’t really know if anything else is worth mentioning at this time. All I do most days is work. I watch movies whenever I get the chance. But most of my free time is spent listening to music. That about covers it. So I’ll try to write more here whenever I can, and refrain from making promises about completing challenges that I simply can’t promise to finish. If you’re one of the five people who actually genuinely looks forward to what I write in here (if those even exist), I hate to let you down. Maybe I’ll go back to recording video reviews or something. In any case, I’m really stuck in a rut right now, so unless I figure out how to get myself unstuck, inconsistency is what you’re gonna have to deal with on this blog from now on.

I’ll post the Now That’s What I Call Music! ranked list in a few days or so. Thanks for reading.

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One Random Single a Day #114: “Borderline” (1983) by Madonna

Some time ago, I decided to go on a musical journey of sorts by way of Madonna’s entire studio discography. While I can’t exactly pinpoint the definite reasoning of why I chose this task and landed on Madonna of all performers, I can say that it probably has something to do with her instantly huge sphere of influence upon her debut, as well as her longevity and importance in the pop music world as we know it today. Her music spans nearly four decade and she has worked with a number of producers, writers, and other artists to seamlessly assimilate into whatever style or sound was hip in the era of its conception. While the quality of her albums varies as much as pretty much any other pop musician out there, there’s no denying that she’s released a fair share of truly memorable singles, a handful of which stand among the greatest of all time. Needless to say, I look very fondly upon Madonna.

With all this said, though, there really is no Madonna like 80s Madonna. While not all of her singles stuck quite so quickly, others like “Into the Groove”, “Like a Virgin”, “Live To Tell”, “Like a Prayer”, and – yes – “Borderline” had become instant classics through her effortless combination of playfulness and sex appeal. And contrary to the history of female pop performers of her vein, she has been a powerful creative force behind the vast majority of her singles from the very start. I would dare say that the era between her 1983 debut and the release of her 1989 album Like a Prayer has, to this day, remained her absolute creative peak. Her contributions to pop music during this time are totally indispensable. She didn’t just make fun dance music – she created some pretty impressive pieces of art that form an important fraction of what and how the world sees an entire esoteric era in pop culture .

And yet despite all of her peaks and valleys, I dare say that few of her dozens of singles have even come close to matching the synth-laden brilliance of “Borderline”. If anyone is even mildly put off by Madonna due to her public image (and believe me, a lot of those people exist), I’m pretty certain that a quick listen to “Borderline” is sure to shut them up. Hidden among the bubbly keyboards and uptempo, danceable pace, Madonna sings about a romantic relationship that remains unfulfilled, possibly teetering at the edge of total destruction (“Something in the way you love me won’t let me be / I don’t want to be your prisoner, so baby, won’t you set me free”). While this seems like a simple dance-pop song on the surface, the power with which she sings her lines make it evident that something a bit more unseemly lies below this cover. This is further helped by the gorgeous melody, which definitely seem like they would translate just as well – if not better – in a rendition of a slower tempo, with more opportunities to really squeeze out the adversity of the narrative.

There is a famous quote, often attributed to Charlie Chaplin, that states something like, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”. While the metaphor is referencing cinema and how it connects to real life, perhaps this could apply to pop music as well. Behind every poppy dance song is an individual with even deeper rooted, repressed problems; behind every happy-go-lucky love song is the pained reality that the good times probably will never last forever (take a listen to The Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” for a great example of the latter). Here, there are hints of glamor in the situation presented in “Borderline”, but they are often subset by a cynical reality (“When you hold me in your arms, you love me ’til I just can’t see… But then you let me down”). The beauty of this song is just so understated, and I wish there were more people who saw it this way as well. Nonetheless, by lieu of Madonna being a woman in the pop industry, many serious music fans often stop short at completely acknowledging her artistry and importance. As for me – I’ll give this one another two or ten spins.

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One Random Single a Day #113: “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” (1973) by George Harrison

There’s no denying that George Harrison was the most talented member of the Beatles. Everyone has their favorites, but there’s no denying that Harrison’s compositions are some of the most well-crafted additions to the Beatles’ huge catalog of material. This is further emphasized by his offerings presented within his solo career. Although I haven’t listened to much of his solo works besides his most renown singles and his acclaimed 1970 album All Things Must Pass, there’s no denying that he truly was something special. Even within singles as diverse as the calm, contemplative “My Sweet Lord” and the bouncy “Got My Mind Set on You” solidify his stance as one of the truly great songwriters and musicians to come out of the Western music industry’s most thriving time.

In any case, it’s pretty easy to say that George Harrison is a man who warrants no necessary introduction. This makes it all the more easier to fully delve into the song in question today! “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” is the opening track and lead single from Harrison’s 1973 album Living in the Material World. After “My Sweet Lord”, it became Harrison’s second single to reach #1 on the American charts; interestingly enough, it knocked Paul McCartney & Wings’s “My Love” off the top spot in doing so, making this the only occasion that two former Beatles held the top two spots. The writing and recording of this song lies parallel with Harrison’s heightened devotion to Hindu spirituality and continued philanthropy in South Asian countries in war or peril. It continues the path cemented by “My Sweet Lord” of Harrison’s fusion of Hindu devotional music with that of Western religious tradition. Also like “My Sweet Lord”, the lyrics here are relatively sparse and simple (“Give me love / Give me peace on earth / Give me light / Give me life/ Keep me free from birth”), with only the repetition of a single verse and a single bridge making up the bulk of the track’s content.

From the title of the song, one could understandably assume that this would fall into tradition of a protest folk song, perhaps one from the likes of Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. However, lines like “Help me cope with this heavy load… reach you with heart and soul” indicate this to be more of an interpersonal, spiritual longing, rather than a social justice call. The lyrics here aren’t particularly on par with the aching poignancy of “My Sweet Lord”, but they do come pretty close at points, especially when Harrison emits those wordless moans that punctuate his melodies. Musically, this avidly demonstrates his penchant for slide guitar lines, and there’s quite a few great moments of that here. Perhaps more under-appreciated, however, is Nicky Hopkin’s piano work which complements the emotion behind Harrison’s guitar and vocal delivery quite well.

Overall, this is quite a powerful, understated little song that is definitely a warm welcome atop the Billboard charts. I will say, though, that unlike “My Sweet Lord”, multiple listens of this track don’t really result in a deeper understanding of the song itself. While the simplicity of “My Sweet Lord” garners deeper meanings about one’s place in the world and the placement of spirituality in one’s life, “Give Me Love” sounds like its riding off of the atmosphere that the previous single had set up, without much more development than had already been established. Nonetheless, that’s not to say that it isn’t at all an enjoyable listen. For what it’s worth, listening to this makes me all the more sure that Harrison was and always will be the most talented Beatle.

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One Random Single a Day #112: “Wild World” (1993) by Mr. Big

I only really know the American band Mr. Big for one achievement – that being their 1992 chart-topping single “To Be With You”, which would prove to be one of the final hurrahs of the hair metal era. A supergroup formed from members of various bands assembled with help from Shrapnel Records, their second album Lean Into It proved to be a commercial breakthrough for the group. It’s especially remarkable that their two most popular singles at the time, “To Be With You” and “Just Take My Heart” (which reached #16), were distinctly hair metal ballads deep in an era where hair metal was out and grunge was in. For what it’s worth, “To Be With You” wasn’t anything special in its day, and it certainly isn’t much now. Its flimsy premise and ham-fisted lyrics are held together only by a powerful, singalong chorus with a melody line that, admittedly, isn’t too bad. It certainly is a relic of its time – though perhaps maybe a few years too late.

“To Be With You” is Mr. Big’s sole achievement in the world of popular music, and after a few quick listens to some of their other material, it’s clear to see why. Where sparse, shouty ballads would’ve sounded welcoming and refreshing in the 80s, their own material just sounds like every tired power ballad cliché in the book. It’s not totally awful – just painfully boring. Nonetheless, they achieved a string of hits in their time, one of which being a cover of one of Cat Stevens’ most revered songs, “Wild World”. I’ve never been a huge fan of the loose banality of the original, but at least Stevens’s unique vocal delivery brings something at least a little worthwhile to the table.

Much like “To Be With You” is only listenable for that anthemic chorus, “Wild World” is also only held up by the delicate melodies in the verses and chorus, courtesy of Stevens himself. By lieu of this being a cover song of a fairly well-known song, the familiarity factor gives this song an added push for finding an audience, since many might find themselves singing along with only the first listen. Nonetheless, as far as cover songs are concerned, this is one of the dull ones. Cover songs are generally not at all worth recording if the performer doesn’t add some interesting stylistic effects that would have listeners opting for this one over the original, even if only occasionally. Mr. Big’s version of “Wild World”, however, is practically identical to the original, making it practically useful for nothing but to fill up space on an album. There’s nothing in this that makes me want to listen to any more Mr. Big – and certainly nothing that would help me to remember this cover’s existence in the first place.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m not particularly fond of the condescension of the lyrics to “Wild World”, but at least the delicate delivery and decent guitar backdrop prevents me from immediately changing the dial right away. Here, the lyrics remain just as eye-rollingly trite, but with even duller and drabber production. The lead singer here is just so uninteresting, and the rest of the band are simply phoning in through the entirety of the record. At least there’s some semblance of energy present in “To Be With You” – here, it’s completely zapped out. I guess if you have any hankering to give a listen to “Wild World” (but really, why would you?), you should always opt for the Cat Stevens original to play it safe.

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