I had purchased the standard DVD of "Grease" Rockin' Rydell edition some time ago
and finally got around to watching it yesterday projected on my Optoma HD70
projector on the Toshiba XA2 HD player which upscaled it. The disc came in
a very clever package which featured a leather jacket zipper on the outside.
In terms of the projected image it's the best I've seen on the film since it's original
release. The 5.1 sound is another matter which I'll discuss later.
"Grease" had a strange distribution history. The early previews of a much longer
cut of the film had poor audience response and Paramount was afraid they had a bomb
on their hands. They completely re-edited it to the current length, trimming most
non-song sections to the minimum and the movie does tend to have a choppy
continuity from scene to scene. However, the short revised version became
a smash hit although it undermined the intentions of the Broadway show
which was a satire of the typical fifties musical. The play had a downbeat
if not cynical tone and was very raunchy. The final movie version is more of a homage to the type of musical Elvis made in the era and is a much tamer 'feel good' picture along the lines of "Bye Bye Birdie".
When the film premiered in 1978, the release prints were mono sound. When it appeared that it was going to be a hit, Paramount quickly re-mixed it to six track magnetic stereo and the picture was actually 're-premiered' in 70mm in New York and other cities. As far as I know, this was the first time this was done although the same formula was later repeated with "Hair" in 1979 which also premiered in mono and was then re-issued in 70mm six track stereo. A small number of 35mm Dolby Stereo prints in four channel (non-discrete) stereo were also made although most of the release copies were still mono sound. The original stereo tracks had a heavy bass presence (a thumping disco beat) and limited rear channel sound.
I disliked the movie when I first saw it, primarily because I was only a few years out
of high school and the 'greasers' in my area were real scum. Most were losers who
had been left back at least once and were the classroom bullies harassing everyone and picking fights in gangs. I actually had a confrontation with one and won the fight which is why they finally left me alone. In most cases greasers came after you in groups of three which was pretty cowardly in my opinion. These were the idiots that would hang around the hallways and try to trip people or kick you while you were trying to take a leak at a urinal and unable to fight back until you finished your business. I couldn't stand them. They were heading for the welfare rolls or prison after 'graduation' if you want to classify social promotion as a degree. The administration evicted them with a dimploma just to get rid of them.
In the eighties, I had re-screened the movie in the repertory cinemas and
realized that the 'gang' in this movie were far removed from their real life counterparts. Travolta, Conaway and the three goofballs they hung out with were non-threatening students 'posing' as greasers. Real ones would've beat their brains in especially if they pulled out a water pistol as a weapon. All of the characters in the picture were broadly played stereotypes and since the scenes between them were so short and the songs catchy, I ended up enjoying the film in the long run.
It's not a particularly good picture but it's a lively one with lots of energy which
distracts you from the narrative flaws. I guess everyone recognizes some of the
characters from their own background. We had a Rizzo type girl in my school who didn't use a condom, got knocked up and dropped out. There were class clowns like the three in the T-Birds whom you laughed at but flunked out. I wonder what the longer preview version was like that audiences hated. I suspect the endless 'Three Stooges' antics combined with tough guy 'posing' would've grated on the nerves. This is a very fantasized version of the era and high school in general although I would guess that most adults have a romanticized memory of their teenage years. (I'm an exception, I hated them and couldn't wait to get out of there, go to college and learn filmmaking). The original play was framed by a reunion which is wisely left out of the movie version.
Twenty years after it was made, the movie was re-issued in 1998 but the prints were a real disappointment. Although digital was slowly being established, it hadn't been used to fix up aging Eastmancolor negatives for either theatrical or home video release. The re-issue "Grease" copies were in Dolby and Digital stereo but the image showed fading, wear and emulsion scratches on the print. What's worse was that the industry had switched to estar stock for the release copies which had a static charge to the film. The static charge caused dust to attach itself to the duplicate negative there were using for printing so there was dust printed into the copy. You could see it in areas where there was a sky. In short, the re-release didn't look good.
Fortunately, the new edition on DVD corrects these problems and the image is fairly fine grain with good color and absolutely no wear. Specifically I recall a major scratch on the image during the scene when Danny talks to Sandy by the jukebox in the re-issue copy. It's been digitally removed here and looks fine. They successfully simulated the "Technicolor" look with the cinematography even though it was a Metrocolor release. The finer detail on the DVD shows up the heavy make up and eye liner used by the actors, especially Travolta. It's more obvious than ever that most of the cast are well past their prime to be playing teenagers. Some of the background extras and dancers look like they're pushing forty. But this is nitpicking I suppose since the film is a fantasy musical, not a semi-realistic one like "West Wide Story". The choreography is very amusing although they incorporated disco moves in the gym dance which is anachronistic.
The plot makes little sense. It's not established that Sandy is still dating the jock and if not, why does Danny have to prove his athletic abilities to her or she her sexual permissiveness to get each other back? As far as we can see, they already have each other so why go through the trouble? It's possible this is where a lot of character footage was trimmed from the preview cut. As a result, the ending seems to come out of no where. Olivia dresses like a seventies' style tramp and Travolta dresses like a jock to keep their relationship going, at least for a while after graduation. I'm not sure what type of future they would have but you're not supposed to think about these things with this kind of movie. The final shot is Travolta and Olivia driving "Greased Lightning" into the heavens. Happily ever after? I seriously doubt it. Sandy will go to college and Danny will end up stacking cans in a paint store ("Saturday Night Fever").
The screenplay structure is so shabby that the only 'drama' in the entire
story is whether Rizzo is pregnant or not and who is the father. Rather
than bring that to a dramatic climax, it's just tossed off with an off handed
'false alarm' comment. That's not bad drama it's 'anti-drama'. To enjoy
this movie, completely ignore the story and just listen to the music and
laugh at the quirky choreography.
In terms of the score, many of the Broadway songs were dropped and
replaced with new tunes like "You're the One that I Want", "Sandy", "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and the title track "Grease". This is one
of the rare cases where the new songs are actually better than most in the Broadway score so it's an asset. The songs left from the play are much raunchier than the replacements. The lyrics of "Greased Lightning" are R rated rather than PG rated which makes it seem out of place in this version especially since there is so
little on screen sex in the story.
If I were to pick my favorite numbers (songs with clever choreography) I would say
they were the drive in scene with the tune "Sandy", "Greased Lighting" with it's white on white set design and "We'll be Together" climax with the extras doing a Groucho Marx dance. In the multiplex I saw the re-issue at, members of the audience sang the "Why-y-y" ending of "Sandy" out loud which was pretty funny. Others did the hand jive in their seats to the gym dance. By the way...not that it matters...but in drive ins the angle of the projector is so high that a person could not cast a shadow on screen if they stood in front of the booth.
The main problem I have with this disc is the 5.1 stereo re-mix. The original bass
heavy audio has been replaced with a more high end stereo separation with lots
of echo coming out of the two rear channels. I found it very annoying. It
gave an artificial sound to the vocals like they were singing in an echo chamber.
I tried lowering the volume of the rear channels but some of the echo effect is in the front left and right speakers too. There's really no way of getting rid of it. If you listen to the sound track album (vinyl or CD) it has a much more realistic music mix. In the menu, you do have the option of 2.0 which has the original
stereo music but the rest of the sound field is so limited it doesn't work either.
I wonder if the 1978 six track stereo version used for the 70mm prints still exits or has it deteriorated beyond restoration? The 35mm magnetic fullcoat stock used
for magnetic mixes was very unstable and subject to oxide flaking and erasure
over time. In some cases the transfer technician only has one pass to re-record it into the digital format (to remove hiss and only problems) and afterwards the tape heads have to be cleaned off from the shedding oxide. Magnetic sound sure sounded great but it was a very impermanent medium. In extreme cases, the fullcoat is so warped and degaused it cannot be used. I hope they saved the first mix for the future along with the re-mixed version derived from it.