Riding high off of the huge success of 1978's "Grease," a big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical that became one of the year's highest grossers and made stars out of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Paramount Pictures put a planned sequel into motion. What was expected to be a financial slam-dunk ended up being precisely the opposite. Working from a script by Ken Finkleman, "Grease 2" was not based on previously written material and, thus, was without an already-established following from the stage. Also gone were Travolta and Newton-John, paving the way for relative newcomers Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer to take over the lead roles. When the film was ultimately released on June 11, 1982, it tanked. Critics trashed it. Audiences dramatically dropped off after a solid first weekend that saw it going head-to-head with the opening of a little movie from director Steven Spielberg called "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." Unsavory word-of-mouth led it to a final box-office gross of fifteen million dollars. By all intents and purposes, "Grease 2" was destined to disappear forever in the shadow of its acclaimed predecessor.
In the quarter-century since "Grease 2" initially flopped, the tides have begun to turnif only a little. The film has become a mainstay on cable television, with VH1 just one of the networks that frequently air it. A quick Internet search reveals several fan sites dedicated to the movie. A twenty-fifth anniversary reunion was held in July 2007 in Burbank, California, with many of the cast members in attendance. In the 2005 documentary, "My Date with Drew," director Brian Herzlinger and celebrity crush Drew Barrymore even bonded over their shared preference for "Grease 2" over the original. Slowly but surely, an impassioned cult following has grown for a motion picture that was once viewed as nothing but a laughing stock.
Irredeemably bad films do not endure over three decades, and there is a reason this one has. "Grease 2" is a bouncy, entertaining, sorely underrated cinematic musical, consistently more watchable than the '78 precursor. The songs, not nearly as oversaturated as the ones heard in "Grease," are catchy, rock-tinted delights, and the musical numbers that accompany them are elaborate showstoppers. This latter accomplishment can be largely attributed to Patricia Birch, a five-time Tony Award-nominated choreographer making her directorial debut. Birch is masterful at displaying a meticulously timeless feel to the dancing and overall scene setups that work within the plot's era (the 1960s), the production's era (the 1980s), and the modern era of the twenty-first century. Irreverently ahead of its timefor proof, look no further than the breakout phenomenon that is Disney Channel's "High School Musical," a prefabricated and highly inferior knockoff that has taken preteen and teen audiences by storm"Grease 2" arguably works better now than it did in 1982.
The time is 1961, and a fresh school year is underway at Rydell High. Not much has changed since greaser Danny and Australian good girl Sandy graduated two years earlier. The Pink Ladies, led by Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the leather-clad T-Birds, headed by Johnny Nogerelli (Adrian Zmed), still rule the school in their overzealous proclamation of cool. New to Rydell is transfer student Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield), Sandy's cousin, natch, who falls head over heels for Stephanie the moment he steps off the bus and catches a glimpse of her. Over the summer, Stephanie broke things off with Johnny, and so Michael assumes she is a free woman.
Not so fast, though. The long-riding rule is that Pink Ladies can only date T-Birdsanything but would put the natural order of their adolescent existence into a tailspina truth that Michael learns the hard way when he actively pursues Stephanie and she rebuffs his advances. In one of the highlight musical performances of the film, Stephanie belts out "Cool Rider," a song detailing her desires for a "bad boy" despite her growing disdain for what the smarmy T-Birds symbolize. In actuality, she's a gal looking for the machismo and danger that comes with being seventeen and seemingly invincible, but also someone who will show her the respect and kindness she deserves. Michael isn't about to give up without a fight, and scatters into two different personalitieshis straight-A, goody-two-shoes high school self, and a sexy, motorcycle-riding mystery man who, hiding his identity behind a helmet and goggles, sweeps Stephanie off her feet and becomes the epitome of what she is yearning for. When Stephanie finds out her dream guy is really Michael, will she finally be able to stand up to her clique and be with the one she loves?
True of the best teen flicks of the 1980s (among them, "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Lucas," "The Last American Virgin"), "Grease 2" can be watched on a whim, at any time, and never wears out its welcome. It isn't a deep film, or particularly meaningful, but it doesn't need to be. It's a silly, frothy musical comedy, meant to be watched late on a Saturday night with friends or on a lazy Sunday morning in one's pajamas. As such, it is a magical experience with a huge heart, a sweet romance at its core, a tried-and-true moral about being yourself, and enough melodic, toe-tapping numbers to have any viewer walk away with a song or three stuck in his or her heads.
The general plot is basically the same as "Grease," but with a role-reversal switch. Where "Grease 2" is a step above is in its tighter pacingthe middle act of the original, for this writer's money, is drawn-out and lugubriousand in the more consistent and eclectic soundtrack. Naysayers who criticize the picture for being cheesy are missing the point; "Grease 2" knows it is cheesy, and embraces this fact for its own benefit. Furthermore, lest anyone forget, the original was goofy too, complete with overblown fantasy sequences and an ending that featured Sandy and Danny driving their car off the carnival midway and up into the sky.
Every musical interlude is memorable and fun. The opener, "Back to School Again," boasts extravagant showmanship and complex, in-synch group choreography. "Score Tonight" is equally as impressive, simultaneously speaking about the bowling game the characters are embroiled in and a double-entendre for their own bubbling-over sexuality. "Reproduction" is deliriously over-the-top in the best way, a flirty classroom number between a science teacher and his students on the subject of sexual biology. The aforementioned "Cool Rider" brilliantly pulsates to life by way of Michelle Pfeiffer's scene-stealing, uninhibited magnetism. "Who's That Guy?" is a moody, entrancing slow-burn that ideally sets up both Stephanie's attraction for the suave biker who keeps showing up in her life and Michael's uncertainty about whether he will be able to pull off a persona so diametrically opposite who he is. "(Love Will) Turn Back the Hands of Time" is a passionate ballad between Stephanie and Michael that deepens their meant-to-be-together relationship. And "We'll Be Together" is an alternately wistful and joyous closing song about the crucial friendships and memories one makes as teens and those first steps toward leaving the safety of high school, growing up, and making their way in an adult world.
With charismatic breakthrough acting turns from Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer that make it clear why Pfeiffer soon became an A-list Hollywood actress and not so obvious why Caulfield, despite still working steadily today, did not hit it bigger, the love story between Michael and Stephanie is as winning, if not more so, than the one between Danny and Sandy. When Stephanie spontaneously runs out on her job pumping gas in lieu of hopping on the back of Michael's motorcycle and zooming down the road, the sequence is bristling with the excitement and nervousness of two people genuinely falling for each other. No matter what happens in the future, at that very moment they are young, their entire lives stand exhilaratingly in front of them, and there's no better feeling in the world. "Grease 2" is a gloriously unpretentious gem just waiting to be discovered, and one of the better movie musicals of the 1980s and beyond. That the film hasn't yet received the full respect and acknowledgment it deserves only adds to its overwhelming appeal and charm.