Armagideon Time

Of the many things in this world which I’ll never understand, cost the 1982 sequel to Grease ranks near the top of the list.

I understand why a film bearing the Grease 2 title was made. The first film was a smash hit which profitably channeled 1970s fascination with the (hyper-romanticized) music and fashions of the 1950s while supercharging the careers of both John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Its soundtrack of nefariously catchy earworms sold like hotcakes and got frequent spins on the industrial phonograph of my second grade classroom during indoor recess time.

Though I never really cared much for the film — my precociously snotty six year old self thought it was rather crass and vulgar — I won’t deny it was a massive popcultural touchstone for kids of my generation. In grossly reductive and admittedly sexist terms, gonorrhea Grease was “Star Wars for Girls.” Or least that was the case in Medford’s Forest Park and Woburn’s Linscott-Rumford Elementary Schools at the time.

(Yes, I know there where plenty of guys who loved Grease and gals who loved Star Wars, but passionate lunchline discussions of Danny Zuko’s race down the L.A. River and Luke Skywalker’s raid on the Death Star’s exhaust port tended to fall along fairly strict gender lines.)

Given Grease‘s multimedia success and Hollywood’s burgeoning fascination with sequels as a means of mitigating risk (or sustaining a winning streak), Grease 2 was all but inevitable. I’m not baffled by why Grease 2 was filmed. I’m baffled by how the sequel took the form that it did.

As I said, I’m not a fan of the first movie, but I can appreciate how well it assembled its constituent parts — cast, soundtrack, choreography, set design, and so forth — into an audience-captivating whole. Timing and contextual trends may have played a part in its box office success, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Grease was a well-made movie which hit all the required marks for a “catchy cinematic musical.”

In contrast, Grease 2 just looks slipshod and cheap. Despite having twice the budget of its predecessor, the sequel feels a made-for-TV product promoted to theatrical release. Like a meal constructed from the scrapings of third generation leftovers, Grease 2 contains just enough fragments of the source material to remind audiences of the inferiority of the half-baked retread before them.

Michelle Pfeiffer (as the next-generation leader of the Pink Ladies) and Maxwell Caulfield (as a geeky British exchange student with a Racer X-ian, hawg-riding alter ego) did their best with the gender-swapped spin on the original film’s plot, but neither was given much to work with. Plot can be something of an afterthought when in comes to the musical genre, but only if the tunes and the production numbers are strong enough to pick up the narrative slack.

Where the Grease contained a strong selection of infectious pop ditties about hot rods, summer loving, and raging hormonal lust, Grease 2 followed these immortal gems up with tunes like “Let’s Go Fuck in a Fallout Shelter” (not the actualy title, though it may as well be) and this widescreen opus to the Sport of Potbellied Kings…

…featuring the scenery-chewing magic of Adrian Zmed for maximum what-the-fuck-ness.

Scores of people were involved in the production of Grease 2. You’d think there would have been at least one person with veto power who witnessed this insanity unfold and thought “Boy, this is not going to end well.” Not only was the material laughably weak, but the broader cultural trends which amplified the original movie’s success had long since evaporated. Happy Days had run its course and 1950s nostalgia had given way to brash Reaganisms and the nauseating introspection of aging baby boomers. There’s a wide cultural gulf between 1978 and 1982, which was made even wider by both conscious and subconscious efforts to repudiate any and all vestiges of the Me Decade’s decadent hedonism.

In a post-MTV, post-Fame, immediately pre-Fast Times at Ridgemont High environment, Grease 2 was more than an poorly conceived misfire. It was an anachronistic joke. While the film has its fans among the type of folks who equate “cult” with “too ashamed to admit I have shit taste in movies,” Grease 2 is one of those pop cult artifacts whose existence defies aesthetic (as opposed to commercial) explanation.

Don’t believe me? Then watch it for yourself and try to figure out why anyone could have thought it was a good idea. I dare you.

7 Responses to “Bowling for diminishing returns”

  1. Greg

    Where does the pollen go?

  2. bitterandrew

    LALALALALALA NOT LISTENING

  3. bitterandrew

    (Seriously, I completely forgot about that number. Now I can’t stop remembering it.)

  4. Aberration, The

    Producer Allan Carr was a talentless mincing toot-nosed freak who got lucky with the original “Grease,” adapting a long-established (from 1971) stage hit. When the movie became a smash, Hollywood simply assumed it wasn’t out of good fortune and a solid, tested foundation, but because Carr was a wonderboy whose shit didn’t stink (a mistake Hollywood continues to make to this day), and Carr surrounded himself with prats whose jobs were to reinforce this belief in Carr himself.

    The rest of Carr’s resume (see IMDb) speaks for itself.

    “Grease 2” director Patricia Birch was the fall gal for “Grease 2.” She’s a highly-respected and experienced choreographer who worked in that capacity in the first movie and for the stage play, and she directed a handful of “events” for TV. This is her sole theatrical-movie-director role. The original’s director, Randal Kleiser, had more directing experience but his own resume still stinks like a used air-sick bag–illustrating again how lucky everyone connected with the original was to be in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances.

    Writer Ken Finkleman also wrote (and directed) “Airplane II: The Sequel” (ugh) and “Head Office” and wrote Madonna’s “Who’s That Girl” before returning to TV, proving it’s a lot harder to make something original than to adapt someone else’s work as Carr did.

    The success of “Grease” boosted the careers of everyone involved, regardless of talent. “Grease 2” was a fire-trial that burned everyone. It is incredible to me that Michelle Pfeiffer survived and even prospered, and it is testament to his durability that poor sap Maxwell Caulfield has persisted through years of Z-movie garbage.

    And Adrian Zmed still finds work on screen, proving that there is a God and He hates us.

  5. Jim Kosmicki

    my sister loved this movie, and still does. When I bought her a copy on DVD as a joke, she thought it was the most thoughtful gift ever. but even she knows it’s not that good. But it was her HBO movie – I’m sure you’ve written about this before – that movie that you discovered on pay cable (when it was still fairly new and expensive enough that not everybody had it) that you watched over and over again just because you could. This phenomena happened to most folks in those mystical tween years when you’re too old to be doing kids’s stuff all summer, but too young to have a summer job. Your parents were just happy that someone was getting to watch the channel you paid so much money each month to have.

  6. Mitchell Craig

    The original Grease was an amazing cannabalization of an off-Broadway play (sort of an American Graffiti minus the irony) whose original songs had a certain wit to them, but were largely supplanted by radio-friendly pop tunes for the top-billed ONJ and JT (you know who I refer to). I saw it once in the cinema, and that’s pretty much all I ever intend to see it.

    Never saw Grease 2.

  7. Xanadude

    Two words in defense of Grease 2: Cool Rider. Love love love love love this number. Don’t hold it against me, though.

    If you have a few spare moments, read “Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr” by Robert Hofler. Basically, by the time Grease 2 and Where the Boys Are 84 came out (and let’s not forget Can’t Stop the Music, which started this whole post Grease cycle of really bad movie musicals), Carr was deeply into a cocaine fueled hedonistic lifestyle. The movies were basically excuses for him to party 24/7. Remember the Snow White/Rob Lowe Oscar ceremony? Carr, again.

    He somewhat rehabilitated his image with La Cage (the original musical) but lived the last part of his life very low key in comparison to the debauchery of the late 70s and early 80s.

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