Grease Is the Word’: Exploring a Cultural Phenomenon

The Introduction

Grease’s blockbuster status completed the long learning curve of making box office giants out of musicals that began after studio executives scrambled to repeat the success of The Sound of Music in 1965. It was a period marked primarily with expensive productions that were then rolled out as spectacles in road-showing with higher-than-normal ticket prices, in selected markets and theatres in the first release wave. The film, which saw a saturated opening week booking in 862 theaters, beginning June 16, 1978, easily recouped its $6 million production budget within the first couple of weeks, including an opening weekend box office gross of $8.9 million.[1] It was the top-ranked film of 1978 in box office grosses. Grease became the second most financially successful musical behind The Sound of Music, earning the equivalent of $600,622,510 when adjusted for inflation. It is also considered to be the sixth most profitable[2] film ever made. In another context, Grease’s performance surpassed that of the much-lauded and Academy Award-winning film version of Chicago (2002), which earned $232,250,776 (CPI-adjusted) and, more recently, Beauty and the Beast (2017) at $504,014,165.

While nostalgia in today’s film industry is viewed as a solid audience attraction[3], in 1978, few were certain that it would sustain box office momentum. The film adaptation of the stage musical version amplified the homage to rock ‘n’ roll but it also smoothed the rough edges of the narrative and characters, making the principals appealing pop art renditions. The film avoided becoming too lightweight, as the characters resolve their personal dramas about relationship and their self-identity. 

The reception frame for Grease morphed as the musical moved from its original staging in Chicago to its 1978 summer release as a blockbuster film. The original musical transformed the popular perception of the 1950s as a stable, idyllic era into a disturbing storm that would roil society’s waters with protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.[4] As a film, Grease became a deft example of product differentiation by engendering and emphasizing nostalgia and a sanitized, even utopian, glance at the 1950s.[5]

The film parodied a genre of 1950s movies – stories about juvenile delinquents, teen exploitation, and rebellion.[6] Certainly, it harkened to the beach party comedies featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, along with lightweight films such as Blue Hawaii (1961) that featured outstanding music and Viva Las Vegas (1964) that paired Presley with Ann-Margret.[7] The script mitigated the dramatic and more provocative tensions of the stage play’s narrative, amplifying its potential as a hugely fun and positive family film experience. Numerous plot points referencing the darker social issues of the original version were edited out, even if they were more historically relevant and representative of the late 1950s.[8] The issue is whether the changes were to be deemed “manipulative,” an issue many scholars of film raise about commodification in Hollywood storytelling[9]?  If seen as a calculated attempt at historical revisionism, of which there is scant evidence, then perhaps. But the evidence also suggests the producers set out to create a text purely to entertain large numbers of people and enrich the coffers for the studio and shareholders. If they had taken a polemically charged revisionist stance, whilst claiming to provide an accurate historical overview of the period, the argument would support the assertions of those scholarly concerns. Thus, it makes more sense to revisit the production process that ultimately secured the film’s phenomenal success.


[1] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=grease.htm See also: Dean Keith. “Cinematic creativity and production budgets: Does money make the movie?.” The Journal of Creative Behavior, 39, 1, 2005, pp. 1-15. There is a tendency, as Simonton contends, to associate large production budgets with the “wrong creative clusters.”

[2] “Movie Budget and Financial Performance Records.” The Numbers – Where Data and Movies Meet, Nash Information Services, 2017, www.the-numbers.com/movie/budgets/. (Most Profitable Movies, Based on Return on Investment).

[3] Sperb, Jason. “Specters of Film: New Nostalgia Movies and Hollywood’s Digital Transition.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc56.2014-2015/SperbDigital-nostalgia/index.html.

[4] The 1971 play was named after the working-class youth subculture referred to as: “Greasers”. In its original Chicago production, the narrative was considered to be profane, vulgar, raunchy and raw, delving on a number of issues to include generational repression, teenage pregnancy, truancy, gang violence, sexual exploration and peer pressure.

[6] Miller, Scott. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. UPNE, 2011. “Grease is a show about repression versus freedom in American sexuality, about the clumsy, tentative, but clearly emerging sexual freedom of the late 1950s, seen through the lens of the middle of the Sexual Revolution in the 1970s. It’s about the near carnal passion 1950s teenagers felt for their rock and roll, the first art form that actually changed human sexuality.”

[7] Doherty, Thomas, and Thomas Patrick Doherty. Teenagers and Teenpics: Juvenilization of American Movies. Temple University Press, 2010.

[8] Jones, Chris. “Bring Back Our Own, Original R-Rated ‘Grease’.” The Theater Loop, Chicago Tribune, 8 Jan. 2009, web.archive.org/web/20131117163229/http://leisureblogs.chicagotribune.com/the_theater_loop/2009/01/bring-back-our.html.

[9] Meehan, Eileen R. “Gendering the COMMODITY AUDIENCE: Critical Media Research, Feminism, and Political Economy.” Media and Cultural Studies (2006): 311.

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