Grease is probably the most famous movie musical of all time. It stormed the box office in 1978 and it's been on repeat — both on screen and stage — ever since. I've seen it more times than I could possibly count. It's seared into my brain.
As for its 1982 sequel, the oft-derided Grease 2: I've watched it exactly once. No reason to see it again. I thought we'd all agreed it was terrible.
But I've noticed a curious thing. There have been several recent online pieces defending Grease 2, some even asserting it's better than the original. Articles from the A.V. Club and Huffington Post praising Grease 2 inspired hundreds of comments, and the comedian June Diane Raphael has declared her unabashed love for the film on the popular podcast How Did This Get Made?
So how does Grease 2 actually hold up? Let's compare it to its predecessor.
GREASE: We all know it. Danny's the greaser, Sandy's straight-laced. He breaks her heart and she breaks his, but everything turns out fine. It's a testament to the energy and attitude of the music that you barely notice that the story is disjointed, its conflicts mostly resolved off-screen and its characters' motivations changing at random.
GREASE 2: It's basically a retread of the first, with the genders swapped. Stephanie (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the bad girl, Michael (Maxwell Caulfield) is the goody-two-shoes trying to fit in. The stakes are just as low. It at least has fewer innocuous subplots than the original, but the movie still seems twice as long as its predecessor despite being the same length.
Advantage: It's a draw
GREASE: It's impossible to deny that Grease's songbook has seeped into our collective conscience, and so it has an automatic leg up. Everybody can hum "Summer Nights" and "Greased Lightnin'" and "You're the One That I Want" — they have a built-in familiarity and I don't think there's a dud in the bunch.
GREASE 2: Although everyone remembers Michelle Pfeiffer purring "Cool Rider" on that ladder, most of the tunes in Grease 2 are simply not all that good. A few are actually deeply uncomfortable, even unlistenable: A half-assed song about bowling, anyone?
GREASE: The first film puts its most powerful weapons — John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John — out front. Sure, they're 20-somethings playing high schoolers, but it's kind of amazing in retrospect that neither of them look foolish doing it. It's no wonder why they became icons.
GREASE 2: If Grease had '70s stars playing '50s dress-up, the sequel has '80s stars playing Grease dress-up. Adrian Zmed, as the leader of the T-Birds gang, is no Travolta. But it must have been apparent to everyone in '82 that Pfeiffer was a born movie star. She's an island of effortless cool amidst a sea of dorkiness.
THE GENDER POLITICS
GREASE: It's been pointed out before, but it's really true: The film is predicated on a gross double standard. Danny Zuko is a total douche and yet he's eventually rewarded, while Sandy completely changes her lovely personality and style because... why? To prove she can stoop to his level? Why do we even want her to be with him? Sandy, you can do better!
GREASE 2: The sequel, meanwhile, flips the script. Stephanie is confident, defiant and refuses to be defined by (or confined to) a man. She could take Zuko in a rumble. The movie still has its problematic moments — the less said about the grope-y "Do It for Our Country" number, the better — but its focus on female agency is refreshing for its era.
Advantage: Grease 2
THE FINAL VERDICT
So, is Grease 2 a better movie than its predecessor? Not even close. But is it the D-grade flop I had remembered it being? Not at all. It's got some charm, even if it feels like a low-rent version of the first one.
And that Michelle Pfeiffer? She's got real potential. ♦
Suds & Cinema Presents Grease Sing-Along • Thu, Sept. 6 at dusk • Free • All ages • 21+ beer garden featuring $5 pints from Icicle Brewing and benefiting Terrain • Olmsted Park • N. Nettleton and Summit Parkway