Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #21A/B

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – Summer Nights/You’re the One that I Want

If you were a young boy – or girl, for that matter – who arrived on June 16, 1978 without having reached puberty, there’s a good chance your progress got a significant boost sometime that summer at the 1:41:38 mark of “Grease”. At that moment, after over 101 minutes of sexist jokes and bad acting but undeniably great music, Olivia Newton-John showed up all in black (save for those red shoes that angels so urgently desire) in a tight sweater and tighter pants (apparently, she did not simply slide into those pants but had to have them sewn onto her body), hair frizzed to its theoretical limits, and showed you the future, with all its potential delights and inevitable frustrations. And a glorious reveal it was.

If you had “Olivia Newton-John becomes a sex symbol” on your 1978 bingo card, you were very much in the minority. She was certainly pretty enough for the gig, but her music – all heartfelt ballads and country twang – did not fit the pop vixen model. The first 101 minutes of “Grease” hewed to this image: the last 10 did not. Let’s set aside for now the problematic suggestion that a girl needs to become a tart in order to win over the man she loves. Sure, he claims he is prepared to clean up his act so that he might be worthy of said love. But let us also not forget how quickly his makeover is abandoned when he sees that she has come over to the dark side.

The movie is pretty awful, and amazingly conservative for being so sex obsessed (or maybe it’s sex obsessed because it’s conservative – there was a great “Daily Show” joke in connection with Mark Sanford’s hike along the Appalachian Trail which noted that a lot of conservative men had liberal penises.) The women fare much better than the men, especially Stockard Channing as Rizzo and, to my surprise, Olivia’s often understated work as Sandy. (As an aside, we really didn’t need to wait until Olivia’s makeover – Dinah Manoff was just standing there, looking gorgeous and waiting to be noticed.) Her co-star, John Travolta, almost never stops mugging, and only his star power enables him to overcome this in quieter moments. But the music is the real star anyway, from rock ‘n’ roll classics to songs from the original stage production to new songs like “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.

“Summer Nights” and “You’re the One that I Want” are a matched pair, the former a contradictory account of young love, the latter coming after the lovers have travelled their journey into each other’s arms again. “Summer Nights”, which was taken from the stage show, is a traditional theatrical song, in that the music – with a lot of quietly picked bass notes and even quieter snare taps – is far less important than the lyrics, since it needs to help push the narrative along. Travolta’s thin singing voice works well with Olivia’s angelic tone, helping to highlight the distinction between their characters’ – in his case, fake – perspectives on events of their shared recent past. It is even shot in contrast, with the camera largely aimed up at Travolta and company, and more frequently at eye level – and thus more intimate – when the women are singing. The song has an updated 1960s’ girl group feel (if you ignore the boys’ guttural “well-a, well-a, well-a, huh” contribution), like the Brill Building hit that Goffin and King never got around to writing.

You’re the One that I Want”, written specifically for the movie, is more modern, and maybe sounds a bit too much like “We Go Together”, which follows it in the film. It doesn’t have to carry any narrative weight, so it can be a simple declaration of – well, what, exactly, is it declaring? Attraction and desire, for sure, but not really love. And the way it is staged in the movie is just weird AF. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies, the Greek chorus of the film to that point, are barely seen after the song’s first minute, but a bunch of unnamed backup dancers, including three creepy guys doing weird hand motions and a woman whose dancing style I would characterise as drunk duck, get ample screen time. Plus, the choreography towards the end of the song includes a way-ahead-of-its-time and completely-wackadoodle-for-its-tonal-incongruity country line dancing takeoff. Like I said, weird AF.

I loved “Grease” when I was 14: the following Halloween, my friend Kirk Boutilier and I were paired T-Birds, with me learning in the process – following several hours of repeated washing – that the greasers of the film’s era were not using Johnson’s Baby Oil to achieve their look. But times change: Olivia is, sadly, now gone, as is Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie, and Travolta has probably never mattered less to the culture in the 50 years that he has been in the public eye. Nostalgia can only take you so far, and the movie will make you squirm at certain points (such as one male character committing what we would now characterize as sexual assault but was then just boys being boys, though certainly not for the girls involved). But the music – boisterous, joyful – hasn’t faded. Nostalgia is best served on your stereo, not your screen, in this case.