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 Grease, Grease 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!