Rydell High School. Children, welcome to 1950s America by way of 1970s America by way of some expat Australians. It’s gonna be a wild ride.
I have friends who can sing all the songs from Grease, that Disney-esque view of being cool in high school. (Fair play, Grease does declare its fantasy-realm from the get-go with the cartoonesque credits and Sandy being nuzzled by a Bambi-like deer.) In school musicals decades after the event, these girls just wanted to play Sandy, or Rizz. The one’s who wanted to play Rizz I kept as friends. The one’s who wanted to play Sandy… well, I wonder what they’re doing now. Still throwing up after one puff of a cigarette? Still answering double-entendres with cringeworthily simplistic misconnections? Still changing to please their man? I mean, Rizz was played by Stockard Channing and Stockard Channing is wonderful. She could act the bobby socks off the whole cast, and she did. In the 1990s Broadway revival of Grease, Brooke Shields played Rizzo. Brooke Shields? I suppose I can see that. And I suppose I could let her into my gang. Which is generous of me considering Blue Lagoon.
I’d always assumed that the film was set in Los Angeles. It’s never stated where the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds are and as a non-American, every American film I assume to come from a) Los Angeles if there is sunshine and beach, or b) New York if there are tall buildings and yellow cabs. Grease has sunshine, ergo, Rydell High School is in Los Angeles. It also has beach which is where Sandy and Danny meet. And in the Thunder Road segment of the film John Travolta heroically races a car along steep-walled concrete aqueducts to save Kenickie’s honour and that of their greaser gang, the T-Birds – I’ve only ever seen this type of aqueduct in LA-based films. So, I was a little confronted to discover that Grease is actually set in Chicago, based on the high school the writer, Jim Jacobs, went to: William Howard Taft School. Only this year, Jacobs said that Sandy was based on his classmate Jeanie Kozemczak. Oh my God, Sandy was real?
But getting back to Los Angeles, the film is surely more LA than Chicago. That opening scene of teen love on the beach with its suggestively crashing waves is far more Pacific Ocean than Lake Michigan. And is it just me or are we seeing a deliberate homage to Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s famous kissing in the waves scene in From Here to Eternity? When Travolta did not throw Newton-John down on the sands and kiss her senseless I knew that in the intervening twenty-five years, the subversive elements of the 1950s had been sanitised, Danny had gone from outsider to fashion statement, just like in the film he’ll go from bad boy to cross-country running letterman. Travolta wears that leather jacket like it itches; he’s probably really happy to swap it for a synthetic cardigan at the end of the film. Grease was produced in the era of punk, it’s a film about the Greasers who threatened America’s 1950s domestic safety, but Travolta’s squeaky-clean Danny might as well be a cartoon. Perhaps the travel lesson of Grease is more about time and cultural rewriting than geography.
But Grease does take on some issues. The divide between genders (Danny: We made out under the dock; Sandy: We stayed up ‘til ten o’clock. Danny: She got friendly down on the sand; Sandy: He got friendly holding my hand.) Rizzo has unprotected sex and thinks she’s pregnant. Frenchie decides to leave high school to become a beautician but is too stupid so she comes back to high school (as if that can help her). The T-Birds are at war with rival gang the Scorpions and risk their lives for supremacy. The TV presenter preys on high school girls. There’s smoking and drinking and hair-dyeing that goes wrong. In 1971, John Jacobs set out to write a topical stageplay about being a teenager; perhaps his mistake was to add songs. In 1978, his dream was turned into the candyfloss of Grease with some extra sweetening by Barry Gibb of the jive-talking BeeGees. But it still had its edge: think of Rizzo’s song ‘There are worse things I could do’ which basically tells girls to go have sex. This was cut from the ‘School’s Version’ of the play. Which Rizzo did my friends want to play? I must find out and, if necessary, cut them from the gang.
But we need to talk about Sandy. And that accent. And what she did for Australia, it’s image across the world, it’s self-loathing at home. I share that accent. So was Sandy my destiny upon crossing the world? Would I sound as unsophisticated, as naïve, as ridiculous as her? Would I be taken on as a curiosity project by the cool gang? Would I be an embarrassment to the coolest boy at school? Would I have to learn to dance and skip in precariously high heels to gain any credibility? Would I really have to perm my hair? Really? With all these and other questions poised on our lips everyday at school, we waited. And waited. And waited. Truly we waited for Olivia Newton-John to appear in our Melbourne classroom as we endured lessons on Shakespeare by Mrs Newton-John, Olivia’s sister-in-law. I know, right! Only one degree of separation. (Which brings me to another excellent Stockard Channing outing: Six Degrees of Separation.) But Sandy never appeared. So we chose the path of Rizzo: cigarettes and pencil skirts. How I still love a pencil skirt.
When I finally went to Los Angeles, I was confused. Was Grease still popular enough to make my Australian twang endearing? Or had Olivia subsequently ruined everything for us with Xanadu? And Physical? I wandered the beaches but never found my summer lovin’. Or got from here to eternity. I suppose that gives me the answer. Damn you, Olive.
Footnote. Australia claims both Olivia Newton-John and the Bee-Gees as our own but both were born in the UK. Which means a) we can ditch them when they are inconvenient to our image such as anytime past 1985, and b) perhaps Olivia is actually a great actress, I mean how did she get such a broad Aussie accent when she spent so little time there? It will take time to process this possibility.