It was sometime around the late 1990s when I learned Patricia Birch’s “Grease 2” (1982) has a cult following.
In addition to fellow theater majors, bad movie junkies and Gen-X contrarians, I kept meeting rational people who’d tell me they not only loved “Grease 2” but preferred it to the 1978 original.
It first occurred to me that the adoration of the John Travolta/ Olivia Newton-John starring “Grease” (1978) was beginning to wane from my own attendance of a “Grease”-themed pajama party I was invited to. It was a dorm room full of young women, all dressed on pajamas, and my buddy and I, both freshmen, were the only guys “cool enough” (more like naïve enough) to attend.
Being single and hopelessly nerdy (and not hopelessly devoted to anyone at the time), I couldn’t believe my luck in being asked to such an occasion. It turned out to be a “Grease” viewing party, in which the young women there, all in P.J.s, sang along and recited every single word uttered by anyone in “Grease” for the entire 110-minute running time.
My buddy and I were invited to the event because we were known to be theater people and singers. After 10 minutes of this, I wanted to run screaming from the building, but hung in there. I didn’t attend any more parties in that dorm room ever again.
However, coincidentally, and not long after that party, where I was traumatized by teen girls singing “Brush-a-brush-a-brush-a” along with Didi Conn in unison, I discovered that one of my closest friends knew all the words to “Cool Rider,” from the “Grease 2” soundtrack. In fact, he knew every single song from that movie, which he unashamedly called his favorite musical.
It was not an isolated incident.
Now, as we approach the 40th anniversary of “Grease 2,” I suspect the response will be more of a welcome homecoming than the hall of shame response it received in its day.
The plot: it’s 1961, a new year at Rydell High, in which the British, introverted Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) is crushing hard on his classmate Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer). She’s a Pink Lady and rebel who only wants to be with a motorcycle adept “cool rider;” Michael takes this pretty far, as he adapts the personality of a revved up cycling stud by night and still manages to be a high school student during the day.
Bruce Wayne never had it so hard.
“Grease 2” is like an underwhelming junior high school class that takes pole position after a group of widely liked Seniors graduate and depart with legacy status forever intact. I didn’t think it was possible but this is all somehow cornier than the original.
A more of the same touch it doesn’t quite get away with: The teenagers are all played by adults who appear in their mid-30s.
If “Grease” comes across like a thorough parody of ’50s/’60s biker flicks, Frankie & Annette beach movies and peachy-keen teen movies, then “Grease 2” is an exhaustive tribute to “Grease.” It’s not just that Travolta and Newton-John left shoes too big for anyone else to fill but the question remains – why return to Rydell High if the coolest kids have all graduated?
With the absence of its impossibly iconic former leads, “Grease 2” doubles down on returning supporting players like Conn and Eve Arden…because when you think about high school, isn’t it the teachers you always remember with the most fondness?
“Grease 2” arrived a year into the creation of MTV, which not only captured the zeitgeist of the world, altered the music industry and revolutionized short film music films but managed to make traditional musicals look like dinosaurs.
The ’80s were largely a decade where untraditional quasi-musicals, like “Purple Rain” (1984) and “True Stories” (1986) surfaced alongside MTV-branded dance musicals, like “Flashdance” (1983), “Footloose” (1984), “White Nights” (1985) and “Dirty Dancing” (1987).
Only the offbeat “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986), a minor hit at best, managed to find an audience with its traditional singing and dancing presentation in the classic musical sense.
Otherwise, “Grease 2” fell in with the company of “Can’t Stop the Music” and “Xanadu,” which were both released in 1980 and cited as the reason for the creation for the Golden Razzie Awards.
The freshness of “Grease” wasn’t the only problem for the sequel, as nostalgia for the era was starting to wane at the time, as even “Happy Days” was on year nine of its eleven-season run.
Despite being slightly less explicit than the original (fewer lyrics like “did she put up a fight?”), the men here are still horny mongoloids. There’s even a music number about it, featuring Tab Hunter and Connie Stevens, which is easily the clumsiest and most embarrassing sequence.
You can’t mention a “lube job” in a movie like this without it being the kind of “Didja-get-it?” double entendre where the cast hams for the camera.
Caulfield is so soft spoken, he seems too shy to carry his own movie, whereas Pfeiffer at least exudes enough pluck and presence to suggest the bigger and better roles in her near future.
While Pfeiffer deservedly found superstardom post-Pink Ladies, Caulfield solidified his cult status with April 8th, “Rex Manning Day,” forever dedicated to the name of his character in “Empire Records” (1995). It’s worth mentioning that Pfeiffer does many of her scenes wearing black sunglasses, a distancing effect that keeps her seeming game but not fully present during some of the cheesier numbers.
FAST FACT: “Grease” has earned an astounding $190 million at the U.S. box office since its 1978 debut, and that doesn’t include the massive soundtrack sales. “Grease 2” generated just $15 million four years later.
So, why the does the “Speed 2: Cruise Control” of the 1980s have a fanbase? Here are some possible reasons:
- The ubiquitous original is so incessantly overplayed, it made the sequel seem refreshing and under-appreciated by default.
- Coming four years after the original, there’s a generation of kids who likely grew up with “Grease 2,” whereas the original felt “old” in the midst of MTV mania.
- Perhaps former teen icon Tab Hunter singing about a sex education class has more appeal than former teen icon Frankie Avalon singing about beauty school?
- Hipsters took to Stephanie and Michael more than Danny and Sandy, if that’s even possible.
Regarding the latter suggestion – the reversal of a young woman as the jacket wearing, trouble making rebel who stirs and transforms the innocent square is less compelling than the other way around, though the concept is still a problem.
Instead of Travolta’s Danny inspiring Newton-John’s Sandy to become a bad girl, Pfeiffer’s Stephanie’s longing for a “cool rider” inspires Michael to become a mysterious motorcycle god (the fact that no one knows its him and he only wears goggles and a helmet as his disguise, is stupid but beside the point).
Either way, the notion is very high school, suggesting that conforming to a clique or persona that isn’t your own to find acceptance and true love. That’s as shallow as it gets.
Granted, both “Grease” movies are largely parodies of “High School Confidential” (1958), “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965) and other empty-headed teeny-bopper flicks of that era, but repeating this conform-to-find-acceptance plotline isn’t just rotten but, sadly, influential, as many high school comedies and dramas carry the same message.
I still find “Grease 2” to be a cringe-worthy and unfortunate follow up to one of the definitive musical blockbusters of my youth. Even the overdone but enjoyable “Staying Alive” (1983), an unlikely sequel to “Saturday Night Fever,” gets the job done better (and that one still had Travolta).
Nevertheless, I’m not trying to aggravate the “Grease 2” fans, whose cult has been steadily growing for decades. Look, if going back to Rydell High, swooning over messages left in the lockers and not even seeing Kenickie and Rizzo is enough for you, then who am I to stand in the way of your happiness?
To quote the immortal lyrics of “Cool Rider”:
“To a cool rider, a cool rider,
If he’s cool enough, he can burn me through and through,
If it takes forever, then I’ll wait forever,
No ordinary boy, no ordinary boy is gonna do
I want a cool rider that’s cool.”