“To my heart I must be true.”
Grease, 1978 (John Travolta) Paramount Pictures
I love conspiracy theories. I also love bizarre urban legends that grow up around particularly popular pieces of art in the culture. A few years back, wild speculation about Grease started circulating. This is on the order of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King book, The Shining. There was a fascinating 2012 documentary made about the subject titled Room 237, wherein fans of the movie espoused on their various and differing interpretations of the film. What does it all mean? Grease was no different.
We know what the movie is about. T-Bird Danny Zuko (John Travolta) loves straight-laced Sandra Dee (Olivia Newton-John), but when Sandy shows up for school at Rydell, Danny plays it cool to avoid alienating his fellow T-Birds. Meanwhile, Sandy is the subject of ridicule among the Pink Ladies, a girl gang led by the bitter Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Danny and Sandy realize they don’t want to walk away from each other, so they resolve to change themselves to please the other. Danny gets into extra-curricular activities, and Sandy dresses up like a black leather tart. I think Sandy wins the battle, but Danny wins the war. In any case, they drive off together (into the clouds) and everybody lives happily ever after. Or do they?
The movie begins with Sandy and Danny running on the beach. In the song, “Summer Nights,” Sandy tells the girls she met Danny on the beach when he rescued her from a near-drowning. The rest of the movie plays out like an extended fantasy and ends with Sandy and Danny ascending to heaven in a 1948 Ford De Luxe Convertible. Add to that the fact that both leads are wearing black when they attend the graduation carnival (which could be considered a funeral service or wake for the dearly departed). The lyrics of the main title song speak of “… a life of illusion, wrapped up in trouble, laced with confusion – what’re we doin’ here?” (indicating a transition to purgatory). Frankie Avalon, singing “Beauty School Drop-Out” to Didi Conn tells her he’s “gotta fly … gotta be going to that malt shop in the sky.”
Long story short: Sandy died and then Danny died trying to rescue her. The rest of the movie is essentially about a couple of ghosts resolving their issues before being permitted entry into the afterlife! That’s the theory. It’s zany! I’m sure if you examined the movie frame-by-frame, you could find or cite visual clues to either confirm or deny the ideas presented in the theory, but there it is. I’ve seen the movie a million times and I’ve never put two and two together. Even if it was not the intention of screenwriter Bronte Woodard (or of the original musical’s writers, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey) to foment this interpretation of Grease, it’s still peculiar and worthy of exploration.
Barring any further metaphysical interpretation, Grease is non-stop fun; quite possibly the greatest filmed musical adaptation of all time. There are quick moments of subversion and self-parody in this over-the-top mélange of late ’50s stereotypes and sensibilities but viewed with the scope and rhythm of the ’70s. Comparing the movie to the original 1971 play, a number of songs were removed, and the incorporation of Sandy’s Australian background was specifically for the purpose of casting Newton-John in the movie, as well as John Farrar’s two new songs, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” and a handful of hit songs from the ’50s. The movie’s double-album soundtrack topped the charts, sold over 20 million copies, and yielded four Top 5 singles. Grease is still the word! We’ll save Grease 2 for another day.