40 years of Hollywood blockbusters: Grease (1978)

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grease
Paramount Pictures

The cult film with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta returns this Sunday on 6ter.

In 2015, we celebrated the 40 years of the blockbuster. On this occasion, First published throughout the summer an article devoted to one film event per year since 1975. For 1978, it is the musical grease, to see again this evening on television, which had been chosen. And it’s true that there are things to tell about this cult film worn by Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta!

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At the end of 1978, the soundtrack of grease is the second biggest success of the year in the USA, behind the soundtrack of Saturday night fever. No need to be Sherlock to spot the common point between the two films: John Travolta. Whether saturday night fever has a somewhat grubby realism that makes it the not-so-distant disco-slicked cousin of rocky (by the way, a poster of the film appears in Feverwho was nearly shot by John Avildsen), grease is it a harmless, pure sugar product, made to capitalize on the enormous success of the eponymous musical and which will strongly water down the source material.

Let’s go back a bit. 1971: greaseromance in the 50s fantasized between a slicked back black jacket (greaser) and an innocent young girl, was created in Chicago on the boards of the blues club Kingston Mines. Its success caught the eye of New York producers who decided to test the musical off-Broadway. Cardboard. Result, from 1972, grease plays at the Broadhurst Theater in New York with Barry Bostwick (future Brad Majors -asshole!- du Rocky Horror Picture Show) as the hero, Danny. who will be played by Richard Gere when grease will make the trip to London in the West End in 1973. It is the beginning of one of the longest cartons in the history of Broadway. A film adaptation then seems inevitable. An animated version is first considered, produced by Steve Krantz (accomplice of Ralph Bakshi on Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic). An idea quickly thrown in the trash, but which will survive through the animated credits of the film.

In 1976, a certain John Travoltawho had been part of the tour grease outside of New York, had just had some success with his song “Let Her In”. Immediately after filming Saturday night feverhe is hired to play the role of Danny instead ofHenry Winkler (Fonzie from Happy Days), first choice too obvious. Travolta asks that we hire Randal Kleiserwho had directed him in 1976 in the TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, to hold the camera. After a convincing screentest with Travolta, the very smooth Olivia Newton John is hired to play the role of Sandy. Australian of English origin, Olivia had represented the United Kingdom during Eurovision in 1974 (the one where Abba made Waterloo) and chained the hits in the USA with her country albums. She was successful enough to release a Greatest Hits in 1977 which panicked the charts. But on the actress side, it was the desert: her musical Toomorowshot in England, only lasted a week following an open conflict between the producer and the director.

grease
Paramount Pictures

For grease – the film, the producer and co-screenwriter Allen Carr (who had produced the Who’s musical tommy and made the promotional campaign of Saturday night fever) decides to dispense with the services of the authors of the original musical and deletes at least four musical numbers. Danny’s gang changes its name from Burger Palace Boys to T-Birds. Sandy goes Australian like Olivia, so she doesn’t have to change her accent. Song lyrics also need to be rewritten accordingly. In the original music, we talk about plastic wrap (“plastic packaging”) to evoke the condoms: an allusion cut in the film. For fun, we plan to give the porn actor Harry Reems (one of the penises of Deep Throat, phenomenal success in theaters in 1974) the role of the sports coach, but Paramount is afraid that this will impact the receipts of the film and it is the most reassuring Sid Caesar who will be retained. Later, the co-author of grease original Jim Jacobs will sign a school version intended to be played by the youngest and which eliminates any reference to alcohol, tobacco and the pregnancy of Rizzo, the leader of the Pink Ladies.

In short, the film was very smooth and became a pure studio product, well done but without real passion. That did not prevent the film from hitting beyond all of Paramount’s expectations. Released in June, a month after the box of the biopic rock’n’roll 50’s (well well) The Buddy Holly Story with Gary Buseyhe will however only be second for his start weekend, narrowly beaten by Jaws 2. But it was first at the box office from June to October, before being dethroned by Those boys who came from Brazil of Franklin J. Schaffner. And the result was final. The soundtrack spawned a slew of wildly successful singles (including the ballad Hopeless Devoted to You), so much so that Olivia Newton-John sued Paramount in 2006 for unpaid music royalties. And with $159.9 million, grease was the biggest hit of 1978, ahead of the first Superman (134 million) released in December. Travolta, nominated for the Oscar in 78 for Saturday night feverhad definitely become a superstar and grease is still the biggest US hit for a musical at the cinema. What makes that, more than forty years later, we always go on in any party staying alive with You’re The One That I Want.

Trailer for the reissue of grease for his twentieth birthday:

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