Sub-Cult

Does Grease 2 Deserve Cult Status?

In our new feature, Nathan Rabin revisits films on the cusp of becoming cult favorites.

by | September 15, 2015 | Comments

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The 1978 film version of Grease benefits from a form of triple nostalgia. First and foremost, it benefits from our unending fascination with the reductive, cartoon version of the 1950s that it helped lodge firmly in the public imagination. Set in 1959, Grease became synonymous with the idyll just before Camelot, despite the anachronistic disco flourishes on the soundtrack (Why disco? Cause disco, baby! Just do another rail and don’t worry your pretty little head about it!).

The second form of nostalgia is not for the era during which the film is set, but rather when it was made. For me and pop culture geeks of my generation, 1978 was a magical year. Disco was triumphant. John Travolta came out of nowhere to become the star of the year thanks to the critical and commercial dominance of Saturday Night Fever (released at the tail end of 1977), which, in addition to its extraordinary commercial success, also won Travolta an Oscar nomination. Travolta also found time to star in a smash television show (Welcome Back, Kotter), and thanks to the Grease soundtrack (and not, it should be noted, due to his album Travolta Fever, also released in 1978), he was briefly a smash hit recording artist as well. Though the zeitgeist-capturing success of Jaws, Animal House and Star Wars signaled a profound change in the kinds of films Hollywood would be making, the Hollywood of the 1970s was still alive and well.

Lastly, Grease benefits from the nostalgia audiences feel towards the time in their lives when they first discovered the film, which tends to be during their pre-critical childhood. Unless you are a willful pop culture Luddite, there is a very good chance that you’ve seen Grease, and probably more than once. Grease was sanitized enough to be acceptable for sleepover parties and late-night cable viewing but honest enough to depict high school as one long, frustrating, often unsuccessful attempt to get laid maddeningly and continuously interrupted by societally-mandated nonsense involving “school” and “church” and “family” and similar dreary obligations.

In the grand tradition of lazy sequels, Grease 2 is essentially a gender-switched remake of the original. The action is still focussed on tough greasers the T-Birds, their distaff counterparts the Pink Ladies, and their mutual stomping (and prancing) grounds at Rydell High, only this time the goody-goody outsider isn’t a gorgeous Australian played by Olivia Newton-John, but her British cousin Michael Carrington, played by Maxwell Caulfield in the performance that launched him to anonymity.

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“Maxwell Caulfield in the performance that launched him to anonymity.”

Everyone you forgot about from the first film is back! Well, not all of them, but some of them at least. Didi Conn returns as Frenchie alongside such other non-favorites from the original as Sid Caesar, Eve Arden, Dennis C. Stewart and Dody Goodman to provide the barest sliver of continuity between the two films, but it’s possible I’m underestimating the filmmakers and they got the guy who stood behind Travolta in the first film to lurk behind Caulfield in this one. Specifically, Frenchie is on hand to assure Michael that any cousin of Sandy is a cousin to her too, and to re-enroll back in school to learn cosmology, since her failure at beauty school is canonical within the Greaseverse and the Grease multiverse.

Frenchie is also on hand to provide the most hilariously desperate line in the movie, a clearly post-dubbed, late-in-the-game addition just after an opening production number (named and themed with exquisite literal-mindedness, “Back To School Again,” which should offer a sense of the level of originality and creativity on display here) where she optimistically enthuses, ostensibly to an anxious Michael, but really to the audience, “You’re gonna love Rydell!” There is then a dramatic pause before the offscreen voice of one of the Four Tops who croon the song helpfully completes that sentiment with “Again!” Any movie that feels the need to assure audiences that they are gonna love the shenanigans in this kooky high school a second time around is clearly not operating from a position of strength.

Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Stephanie, the moody leader of the Pink Ladies and, along with Caulfield, one of two people in the film who seem to realize that they are acting in a movie, and not a dinner theater performance for the vision and hearing impaired in a Florida retirement home where every gesture and line needs to be exaggerated just to be understood, let alone enjoyed.

Caulfield is cursed to be hopelessly inadequate in the Olivia Newton-John role, but even he fares better than Adrian Zmed (who you most assuredly probably do not know as the other guy on T.J. Hooker), who was in his late twenties when he played Johnny but could easily pass for 40. True, Stockard Channing was so mature-looking in the first Grease that she could have easily played either Betty Rizzo or Betty Rizzo’s mother, but she at least had extraordinary talent to fall back on; all Zmed has is giant hair and Travolta’s poorly recycled dance moves.

The problem with Grease 2 is that it plays like a cartoon of a cartoon. It takes a franchise that already teetered on the brink of self-parody and pushes it madly into the realm of delirious self-satire. If Grease was deeply attuned to the hormonal madness of teenaged life, Grease 2 is essentially a 14-year-old with a perpetual hard-on, which is also, in its own right, deeply true to high school life.

The key to understanding Grease 2 is to realize that every song is about sex, some more overtly than others. There is, for example, a production number entitled “Score Tonight” that trades on the fortuitous coincidence that “scoring” figures prominently in both bowling and sex, albeit for different reasons.

Really, there is no innocent tableau Grease 2s filthy mind cannot cavalierly corrupt. 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter, fresh off his career-revitalizing performance in John Waters’ Polyester, stammers and blushes his way through “Reproduction,” a song ostensibly about the manner by which flowers reproduce that’s actually a filthy exploration of the sex-crazed minds of Rydell High’s students, who seem to be in their late thirties on average.

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“Pfeiffer somehow manages to be sexy in a tough, non-pandering way.”

Not even the prospect of mutually assured thermonuclear armageddon can keep the perverts of Grease 2 from obsessing about sex. In “Do It For Our Country,” one of the lesser T-Birds tries to convince one of the lesser Pink Ladies to break down and finally have sex with him in an underground bunker by having his buddies fake a nuclear war outside so that she’ll feel obligated to have sex with him for America. And Jesus. And apple pie and Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney and the New York Yankees and everything that makes our country great. In the film, that’s depicted as innocent hijinks, but in the real world, if a man faked a nuclear apocalypse to trick an unwilling woman into having sex with him it would be sleazy and unethical at best and possibly criminal at worst.

Grease 2 doesn’t care. At a certain point, it begins nonsensically inserting sex in places where it doesn’t belong, seemingly in a weird attempt to bait audiences. So, not long after the T-Birds’ hilarious “pressuring a girl into sex via elaborate trickery” scheme fails, Zmed’s Johnny leads his lovable gang in a bewildering song and production number entitled “Prowlin.’”

It would be creepy enough to just have a song called “Prowlin,'” an unnerving word rightly associated with rapists and sexual predators. But Grease 2 makes things even weirder and more nonsensical by making the song all about how guys on the make are absolutely guaranteed to get laid at the grocery store. Within Grease 2, grocery stores are apparently Plato’s Retreat-like dens of decadence and debauchery.

Pfeiffer somehow manages to be sexy in a tough, non-pandering way in a movie that is incredibly sexual, yet incredibly unsexy despite pandering relentlessly. Beyond remaking Grease, only with the foreigner a dreamy boy this time, Grease 2s plot centers on the T-Birds’ and Pink Ladies’ suspiciously fierce determination to win the school talent show and Michael’s attempts to win Stephanie’s heart by adopting the persona of Cool Rider, a mysterious biker outlaw whose leather-fetish get-up makes him look less like an actual biker than an extra from Cruising.

Pfeiffer is so good and so committed here that she almost sells the preposterous conceit that a woman as cool and hip and gorgeous as Pfeiffer was — and remains — would fall rapturously in love with some goon in black motorcycle fetish gear who refuses to reveal his identity and appears to die mysteriously before mysteriously coming back to life like some cross between James Dean, Jesus Christ, and Poochie from The Simpsons. In Pfeiffer’s big production number, “Cool Rider,” the superstar-to-be accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of putting across a dire “Leader Of The Pack” knockoff through steely determination and furious exertion, although even when delivered by Pfeiffer, the character’s desire for a man “cool enough” that he can “burn me through and through” sounds suspiciously like she’s aching to be burnt by a venereal disease if the guy is hot enough.

In a movie where everyone is playing to the cheap seats, yelling their lines, and mugging wildly, Caulfield recedes so thoroughly into the background he nearly disappears. Whatever producer Allan Carr saw in Caulfield beyond exceptional hair and remarkable cheekbones failed to materialize onscreen. Of course, the filmmakers didn’t make it easy for Caulfield by having him simultaneously replace Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta (thereby making him the Olivia Newton-John Travolta of the film) as both the male romantic lead and the goody-goody foreigner without giving him much of a character to play.

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“There is no innocent tableau Grease 2s filthy mind cannot cavalierly corrupt.”

Director Patricia Birch, who choreographed the first film, seems far more comfortable orchestrating giant dance numbers where interchangeable singer-dancer-actor types, seemingly on their lunch break from Ed Debevic’s, gyrate in mad synchronicity with permanent cocaine smiles on their face than she is with dialogue. Caulfield has no chemistry with Pfeiffer; he’s a bland, hunky blank for audiences to project their own desires and fantasies upon even before he gives up what little identity he has to become the mysterious Cool Rider.

But if Caulfield was aggressively vetoed as a bankable leading man by moviegoers and critics alike and made for a dreadfully insufficient Travolta replacement, plenty of girls (and boys) obviously deemed him sufficiently crush-worthy in the decades since Grease 2 came and went in theaters, and then fiendishly came back and hung on in its surprising and thriving afterlife on home video.

Grease 2 earns its following partially to the way video stores leveled the field. In movie theaters, it might have been a critically reviled flop with a troubled production history and a pair of unknowns in the leads. But at video stores like the one where I worked as a teenager, Grease 2 was just another video to rent, like Grease, and if you’d seen Grease a whole bunch of times, as a lot of people clearly have, then why not rent the sequel?

Morbid fascination, that eternal itch to find out just how bad notorious flops can be, certainly plays a role in Grease 2’s ascent from flop to cable and home video favorite, but the film’s strange semi-success is also attributable to the fact that it slavishly replicates all of the elements that made the original so enduring, albeit in degraded form. Though cleaned up from the stage version, Grease still possessed a little bit of that 1970s grit and soul, thanks largely to performances by Travolta and Stockard Channing that breathed life and heart into cardboard archetypes, but Grease 2 is pure comic strip, about as tough and true to adolescent life as a Bazooka Joe comic.

Grease 2 is a tough film to evaluate because the very qualities that make it objectively terrible also make it a whole lot of fun. The songs here stand out because they are thoroughly, mesmerizingly, hypnotically, adverb-inducingly idiotic, not because they’re good, but because they lodge themselves in the brain all the same. And the over-the-top smuttiness that makes Grease 2 even dumber than its predecessor also renders it a surprisingly enjoyable exercise in delirious self-parody.

Even today, Grease 2 continues to live within the shadow of its predecessor’s historic and never-ending success. But for a tacky little movie whose charms are almost entirely of the plastic variety, Grease leaves behind such a massive legacy that an even tackier, even more plastic sequel can exist entirely as a tardy footnote to the original and still enjoy, if not a proper cult following, then an unmistakable Sub-Cult. Grease 2 is so bad it’s kind of amazing, and kind of amazingly bad.


My Original Certification: Rotten
My Re-Certification: Fresh
Tomatometer: 32 percent

Up next: Good Burger

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