The soundtrack sold 28 million copies and defined an era in pop music. We look at the electrifying 1970s phenomenon
Grease is the word: it's been 40 years since the soundtrack was released
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John embrace on a deserted beach. “Danny,” she asks as plaintive strings swell in the background. “Is this the end?” “Of course not,” replies the beautifully bequiffed bad-boy Travolta. “It’s only the beginning.” And then, what would become the highest-grossing musical movie of all time is suddenly jolted into action by the famous brassy introduction of its disco-tinged title track.
“Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion. Grease is the way we are feeling.”
It’s one of the great movie theme tunes – and yet it might never have seen the light of day. After all, there’s a certain incongruity in a teenage musical set in the 1950s being introduced by a 1970s disco track written by The Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. Director Randal Kleiser was certainly uneasy at its inclusion. But Gibb had just written Staying Alive, How Deep Is Your Love and Night Fever for the all-conquering Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (the film also starred Travolta). Kleiser was over-ruled. The rest is music history – and it’s telling that Kleiser would later tell the Bustle website: “It’s good that I lost that creative choice, because it was a giant hit. I would flip on the radio and hear the song at every station.”
On Saturday, it will be 40 years since the Grease soundtrack was first placed on heavy rotation on American airwaves. It predated the film by two months, something that would seem a little strange today, but listening again, it’s clear why. With the title track swiftly followed by the swinging Travolta/Newton-John duet You’re The One That I Want (another song Kleiser wasn’t totally comfortable with at the time) and the Oscar-nominated ballad Hopelessly Devoted To You, the procession of infectious pop songs set the tone for the breezily giddy high school tale of star-crossed lovers, wise-cracking “rebel” Danny and preppy goody-goody Sandy.
They were hits in their own right, too. The Grease single went to number one, selling more than seven million copies. You’re The One That I Want not only repeated that trick, it became one of the best-selling singles of all time. The 1978 summer smash was Summer Nights – one of the re-recorded songs from the original stage musical. By the time Greased Lightning was hitting the airwaves, the soundtrack had become the second biggest selling album of the year in the United States – beaten by Saturday Night Fever. Barry Gibb seemed untouchable – and the music helped chivvy the film through its lukewarm early reviews.
Nearly 30 million album sales later, these songs still endure, in no small part because listening to them is like peeling back layers of nostalgia. When the Broadway musical was premiered in 1972, Time likened it to “an old yearbook in the carton of high school memorabilia we all keep stored somewhere in the back of our lives.” Anyone who grew up in the 1980s watching Grease on VHS will feel that same sense of nostalgia today, for songs that soundtracked their own high school lives. In that sense, it doesn’t matter that the high school students were being played by actors in their mid-20s, or that there are liberal sprinklings of songs 20 years out of their setting.
The combination of high-octane youth musical and radio-friendly smash-hit soundtrack is a phenomenon movie execs and record companies cannot resist, not least because Grease turned in a $389m profit. But at the time (greased) lightning didn’t strike twice: Grease 2 was a total flop. It took until the 21st century for musical cinema to reach anything like Grease’s heights, the obvious comparison being the all-singing, all-dancing High School Musical series, which made a star of Zac Efron, and spawned soundtracks, concert tours, books, video games, even a reality show on its way to grossing $1 billion (and counting).
But there’s also an argument that without the example of Grease’s soaraway success, the likes of Mamma Mia – which only overtook Grease as the highest grossing movie musical in 2008 – would never have made the successful transition from stage to screen. Sometimes, the impact of films which are just great fun should not be underestimated.
Meanwhile, in 2016, Vanity Fair worked out that more than 123,000 productions of the stage musical have been mounted around the world. These days, the classic songs written specifically for the film are often included – and rightly so: it would be odd indeed to go and see Grease and not hear the title track or You’re The One That I Want. Not bad for a couple of songs only written at the very last minute – the power they’re still supplying, well, it’s electrifying.