Graded on a Curve: VA, Grease: The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture

We all have to do ugly things if we expect to get ahead in this world. Stab a competitor in the back. Cheat a close friend out of a promotion. Whack a guy named Joey Marbles then shove a dead fish in his mouth. Me, I had to listen to Grease: The Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture. Believe me, the guy who had to whack Joey Marbles had it easy.

The closest comparison to 1978’s Grease is 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, both starring a pre-Scientology John Travolta. But whereas the latter was a serious depiction of the then disco present, Grease was a nostalgic look back at the anodyne late 1950s, when life was simpler and the rough beast of rock and roll had been defanged, leaving America’s young people to worship at the altar of teen idols like Paul Anka and Annette Funicello.

Both films were instant smashes with wildly successful soundtracks, with this difference—the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is iconic and filled with unforgettable songs, while only a few of the songs from Grease will ring a bell with your average listener. Admittedly Grease spawned four hit singles, two of which topped the pop charts. But its two other singles tanked—one didn’t even make the pop charts. Compare that to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which is star studded with hits. Barry Gibb contributed four number ones (and some other greats) all by his lonesome, and the soundtrack featured hits by the Trammps, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Yvonne Elliman as well.

The best way to evaluate the relative musical merits of the Saturday Night Fever and Grease soundtracks is to compare the bands that dominate them. Saturday Night Fever is a vehicle for the glitterball-era Bee Gees at the top of their form. Grease, on the other hand, showcases the novelty act Sha Na Na doing its retro-fifties shtick. Tell me you prefer the latter and I may just get in touch with the wise guy who shoved a fish in Joey Marbles’ mouth.

The Grease soundtrack opens on an anachronistic note with the title track and hit single, which features fifties teen heartthrob Frankie Valli—singing a disco song. And one written by Barry Gibb no less. I can practically hear the producers saying, “This thing’s going to be a dud unless we don’t go the disco route! The coke spoon crowd will snort it right up! Get KC and the Sunshine Band on the three-pound cordless telephone and tell him we need six hits by tomorrow!” But they had to work with what they had—setting the film at Studio 54 High School was a non-starter.

So they pulled themselves up by their wide lapels and made a decision to top-load side one with the soundtrack’s only memorable songs. The Travolta/Olivia Newton-John duet “Summer Nights” is impossibly chipper and benefits enormously from the backing vocals, which consist of Travolta’s pals and the school’s “Pink Ladies” interrogating Travolta and Newton-John respectively about their sexual escapades (or lack thereof) during a summer fling at the beach. “You’re the One That I Want” is top notch pop and as good as any produced during the era. Side one also includes “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which I’m dead certain was a put-your-head-on-my-shoulder slow dance standard at high school proms from Deadhorse, Alaska to Zephyrhills, Florida.

The remaining three sides are—for the most part anyway—an unabashed camp fest. Sha Na Na contributes five of the six songs that make up side three, and while they work in the context of the movie they don’t hold up on vinyl, because the band’s trip down rock and roll memory lane had to be seen to be appreciated. A facile analogy would be The Village People, if it weren’t for the fact that The Village People weren’t parodying the past but celebrating the present, and—more importantly—contributing timeless gems to the pop music canon. Say what you will about Sha Na Na, they never gave the world a “Y.M.C.A.”

Excepting a pair of truly objectionable instrumentals, sides two and four are filled with likeable parodies of the sounds of the youth of the fabulous fifties. The novelty songs include “Beauty School Dropout,” which is sung by Frankie Avalon, another Baby Boom teen-heartthrob. Stockard Channing delivers on the equally funny “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee,” an ironic salute to the virginal female leads of the teen films of the post-war era. And “It’s Raining on Prom Night” is a perfect send-up of teen tragedy that comes complete with the lines “I don’t even have my corsage, oh gee/It fell down a sewer with my sister’s ID.”

I watched the film Grease (have to do your homework) and enjoyed it more than I expected to. It’s kitsch, sure, but great kitsch, and fifty times smarter than Happy Days. Unfortunately, its soundtrack falls short, because its songs don’t stand on their own outside the context of the film. Some may own the LP because they want the Travolta/Newton-John duets on vinyl. Bot most own it because they loved the movie. Which raises a phenomenon worthy of consideration, namely people nostalgic for a film about nostalgia. But why give yourself a headache thinking about it? Take a seat in the back row of your living room. Snap your gum to annoy the kids. Pomade’s available in the lobby.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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