Blu-ray Review: Grease Gets Top-Notch Treatment

OK, I admit it: No salesman will ever try to sell you a 60-inch plasma set by showing you the new Blu-ray edition of Grease ($29.99). It's a low-tech 1978 movie whose cheesiness is part of its appeal, and you can only sharpen it up so far. But you'll never see a better-looking print of the most popular movie musical in history, the '50s-exploiting extravaganza that proved Saturday Night Fever (also new on Blu-ray) was no fluke, and John Travolta was a movie star.

And his chemistry with Olivia Newton-John (whose sinking career was reignited by Grease's fire) makes Saturday Night Fever's Karen Lynn Gorney look like a raspberry icicle. Newton-John, whose excessively mellow nice-girl voice was starting to cloy, had a potentially fatal problem at the time. Her simpering, insipid persona had peaked. The movie enabled her to pull off what her character does: A startling metamorphosis from pallid wallflower to sizzling sex kitten. It solved her real-life image problem, a little like The Philadelphia Story solved Kate Hepburn's.

Grease is not a blazing masterpiece like Fever, but it holds up nicely -- and if you don't like the story, a loosely connected string of anecdotes recycling and extending '50s cultural clichés, you can watch the movie in karaoke mode: There's a "Rydell Sing-Along" feature that cues up all the musical numbers, serially or individually, so you can get plastered and join the chorus. People pay money to do this at bars. Director Randal Kleiser claims "Summer Nights" is the most-sung karaoke tune on earth.

I do recommend watching the actual film, however. All the skit-like scenes are big fun, except for a few moving ones by the brilliant genius of bitchiness, Stockard Channing as bad girl Betty, mean-teen leader of the Pink Ladies. The choreography is a dream. The '50s stars who stud the film -- Eve Arden of the high-school hit TV show Our Miss Brooks, Joan Blondell of The Real McCoys, Sid Caesar of Your Show of Shows -- are as iconic as they get. And the film's period iconography does way more to make the '50s immortal than American Graffiti and Happy Days did. Evidently God himself approved of this flick. When Travolta stepped up to the football field bleachers to sing his heart out to his star-crossed Aussie lover, who appears on the left side of the split screen in a shot nicely cleaned up by modern technology in a way not possible in 1978, the sun happened to break through the clouds and ignite his face at precisely the right soaring moment of the song.

Not convinced of divine intervention? How about the opening scene of Travolta and Olivia's pre-Rydell High summer love idyll on a beach, not found in the original Broadway hit play (which was crappy, the film is the classic)? It's niftily punctuated by the couple getting doused in mid-moony embrace by a sneaker wave that appears out of nowhere and soaks them to the skin. Or the fact that Olivia is even in the film? The only reason she got the job was that she happened to go to dinner at Helen Reddy's house, and Grease's producer was there. She was really funny, making faces and cracking jokes, and he realized she was a far livelier presence than her records would suggest, so he cast her.

Or how about the scene in Olivia's bedroom when Channing sneeringly sings "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" -- she sings it partly to Elvis Presley's photo on the wall. Guess who died the day they were filming this? Elvis Presley. "It was weird," says Kleiser on the voice-over commentary. I rest my case. This film was meant to be.

GreaseThough the extras can be found on the non-Blu-ray version of the movie, they're pretty good. Film nerds will like the commentary by Kleiser and choreographer Patricia Birch, whose contribution is absolutely almost as important as his. They solve the kind of mysteries film nerds love. After her transformation from pastel virgin to black-leather dominatrix in the last scene, how did Olivia manage to make her cigarette drop right under Travolta's nose so she can stamp it out haughtily? She couldn't, until a helpful crewman put a bobby pin in it to give it weight and hit the mark. How does Channing shuffle cards absentmindedly without spilling any? There's a little thread connecting every card in the deck. Why does Travolta brandish Saran Wrap in the great fantasy sequence about souping up his hot rod? That's what '50s kids supposedly used for condoms. (No wonder Channing's bad girl had some troubles.)

Who are the greaser T-Bird boys imitating all the time? The Three Stooges. When Olivia sings her contractually required solo "Hopelessly Devoted to You" on her porch, why is there a case of Pepsi behind her? Pepsi paid for it. At Frosty's Palace hamburger joint, how come the signs in the background are all blurry? Because they say "Coca-Cola," and Pepsi would get mad, so the director had to use crude 1978 technology to obscure the signs, and actually hand-draw around the actors' hair on every frame. They also missed a Coca-Cola machine in one corner, and left it in.

The 11 deleted scenes, ten minutes in black and white, all deserve to have been deleted, but they do fill in character interestingly. The drive-in scene where Travolta unsuccessfully tries to get frisky with Olivia is especially significant: It was a screen test demanded by Olivia, who wanted to see if she and he looked good together. I'm not aware of too many screen tests demanded by the star instead of the studio.

There are five other extras, mostly very brief interviews with cast and crew. The best is the 15-minute 2002 "Grease on DVD Launch Party," with the stars singing the old hits. Kleiser says Stockard Channing was in tears that night watching her old self on screen. Now that would've been footage worth including.