Grease Is the Word’: Exploring a Cultural Phenomenon NOSTALGIA IN GREASE

Bauman was a purist in preserving a specific nostalgic conceptualization of the 1950s but historically accurate representations were not an essential element for an industry blockbuster. Jameson wrote that the nostalgia film is “mortgaged to music.”[1] Grease’s throwback to the fondly remembered era of Eisenhower makes for an interesting and obviously appealing film because it is human nature to look back and imagine the experiences of older generations, especially in music and dance. Paul Grainge noted that “the ways in which history is reconfigured in the retro film, and recontextualized through music, are complex, involving an affective address that marks out the pastness in the retro film as stylish or ‘cool’, hence the particular appeal of retro objects to youth or style-driven markets.”[2] This is evident in Grease, which incorporates immediately recognizable songs that would drive viewers of the film to their nearby music store to purchase the soundtrack. To wit: The album was certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1984, having had 8 million copies shipped to retailers.[3]

Kleiser explained why he engaged with the theme of nostalgia in Grease, specifically if he was trying to benefit from the demographic interest seen in previous films such as American Graffiti (1973)?  “Grease is definitely a surreal and idealized view of the 50s. My roommate in college was George Lucas, writer/director of American Graffiti.  We both grew up as kids in that era and it influenced us in our films.”[4] As Dick Liberatore, a D.J. from Cleveland, put it, ‘My audience wants to forget its problems and return to – or at least recall – those happy high school times, the prom, no wars, no riots, no protests, the convertibles at the drive-in. The past is an ailment from which one has fortunately recovered, so nostalgia is in part relief, as well as an amused fondness for bygone pleasant times.’[5] It was not just in the music but also the casting for the film that reinforced the film’s overarching nostalgic vibe.

Of especial note was the addition of songs to the film not found in the stage version. These included “Sandy,” with music by Louis St. Louis, and lyrics by Scott J. Simon, who was also known as “Screamin’” Scott Simon from the music group Sha-Na-Na, which appeared in the film as “Johnny Casino & The Gamblers.” John Farrar, Olivia Newton-John’s music producer, and songwriter wrote: “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” which became hit singles. The latter song fulfilled a contractual obligation for the young Australian singer to have a solo in the film in her character as “Sandy.” A solid ballad that earned an Academy Award nomination, the song is performed after Sandy abruptly leaves the school pep rally because of Danny’s treatment of her in front of his buddies.
Barry Gibb’s theme song, “Grease,” performed by Frankie Valli and featured in an animated opening credits sequence, sparked the greatest controversy. Kleiser believed that Gibb’s music and lyrics contradicted the sunny optimism of the film’s cast and the title song. Forty years later, Kleiser seems to have made his peace with being overruled in this matter: “The lyrics didn’t match the film, but I’m thrilled that I was outvoted. The title song was a huge hit and I’m happy it was used.” The song topped the U.S. charts for two weeks in late summer 1978.
Sha-Na-Na’s cameo appearance in the film neatly captures the promises as well as the pitfalls of the idealized nostalgia project that carried the film. As rock musical theater, Grease incorporated the sounds typically associated with rock music in its score. But, its composition style was more invested in Broadway tradition than it was in classic forms of rock and pop songs, which do not usually translate into effective dramatic staging and interpretation in the theatre. The group, formed in 1969, thrived as it parodied the greaser and rock ‘n’ roll culture of the 1950s, led by Jon Bauman, a/k/a Bowzer, the self-appointed authenticator of culture. In a 1978 interview with People magazine, Bauman did not restrain his criticism about the emerging 1970s icon of the 1950s’ nostalgia wave — calling Henry Winkler’s Fonz from Happy Days “a lightweight” and Travolta’s Danny in Grease “an absolute nothing,” adding that the film’s script was a “weak nothing.” Ironically, Sha-Na-Na had to overcome the skeptical impression of older performers (in Sha-Na-Na’s instance, ranging in age from 26 to 32) filling in as teenage rock ‘n’ rollers.
Music for the film Prior to Grease’s release, Bauman’s group’s music variety series was a hit in television syndication and had just been renewed for a second season in 136 cities. Along with the band’s brief appearance in Grease, Sha-Na-Na recorded six tracks on the film’s soundtrack, which rose to the top Billboard chart spot, overtaking Some Girls from Rolling Stones. Bauman proclaimed, “Sha-Na-Na was unquestionably the stimulus for the entire ’50s craze.” Bauman, a Columbia University student, formed the group three years before Grease hit Broadway, taking the name from the chorus to Get A Job, a chart-topping single in 1958 by the Silhouettes. After an appearance at the first Woodstock festival in 1969, the group launched a college tour to large audiences. Bauman said in his People interview that he emulated the style of greasers he saw in Queens, where he grew up.

The first documented sign of interest in bringing the stage musical Grease to the cinema screen is traced to a Variety report of January 30, 1974.  Producer Steve Krantz and animator Ralph Bakshi (known for the X-rated animated film Fritz the Cat, 1972[1]) attempted to acquire the film rights to adapt Grease into an animated feature. Two years later, with the original option having lapsed, Robert Stigwood and Allan Carr purchased the rights in 1976, with Carr paying the $200,000 sum out of his own pocket in monthly installments. This was not unusual for the producer, known for his extravagant and impulsive behavior.[2] After the lackluster performance of Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly! (1969), the idea of adapting any stage musical for the big screen was not the most appealing. As Bill Butler, cinematographer, recalled in a 1978 piece for a cinematographer’s journal, “[we] realized that there are a lot of traps in making musicals and that you can go wrong very easily. Musicals have lost favor with the public, mainly because they have been done poorly. You have to avoid giving them something that is poorly constructed, poorly timed, and poorly photographed.”[3]

The producers chose newcomer Randal Kleiser as director. Kleiser was a roommate of George Lucas (whose Star Wars release in 1977 set new bars for the blockbuster’s financial impact) during his student days at the University of Southern California (USC). Kleiser found success in television, working on Marcus Welby, M.D. (1974-75) and Family (1976), two popular television series. He also directed several made-for-television movies, including The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976) with John Travolta (the future star of Grease) and The Gathering (1977) with Ed Asner, a prominent television actor known for his role as Lou Grant in the Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77). Kleiser was nominated in 1978 for the Emmy’s Best Director honors for The Gathering. Kleiser’s coming of age professionally coincided with the rise of the New Hollywood filmmaking movement but he and his collegiate peers at USC, known as the ‘Bratpackers’ bucked the trend. Kleiser joined John Milius, Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, George Lucas, acolyte Steven Spielberg[4], and mentor Francis Coppola[5] as the most commercially focused graduating class of the USC film school to this day. But, Kleiser says the film school’s influence was minimal. “All of us at USC Film School in the late ’60s were told we would never get into the industry, so we had no sense of competition. We all helped each other with our student projects.”[6]

Kleiser’s selection to helm the film surprised some insiders, especially on Broadway, given that Tom Moore as the director had steered Grease to its historic place in the American musical theater canon. In an interview, eight years after the film was released, Moore said he understood Carr’s decision, despite some lingering misgivings. “The film was, first and foremost Allan Carr’s vision,” he said. “Still, it’s hard watching all your work being used and not sharing the credit—although I did share financially, which saved my feelings to a great extent.”[7] Moore had directed the first off-Broadway production in early 1972, later transferred to an official Broadway theatre less than four months after its off-Broadway opening in New York City.

For choreography, Carr and Stigwood engaged Patricia Birch, the original stage version’s choreographer. Butler adds that as newcomers, “all three of us [Butler, Kleiser, and Birch] listened very closely to what Allan Carr had to say about his vision of what he felt a film musical should be. We were very sensitive to his desire to lend a bit of the old-fashioned Hollywood musical flavor to the movie, and that’s the direction we took.”[8] Butler’s comments indicate how Carr’s role as a producer often blurred the lines into the director’s bailiwick. Kleiser had this to say: “Allan’s contributions were instrumental in the success of the movie.  I think my pushback on certain of his ideas turned out to be the perfect storm to make it work.”[9]

The evolving creative network of Carr, Butler, Kleiser, and Birch was unconventional and intriguing, given a director usually does not tolerate any interference in the creative process once the film has been given a greenlight. Typically, “the director is the ultimate monitor of a film project.”[10] Kleiser knew that he had yet to earn the holistic mantle of creative empowerment and so, despite many references to him as being unprepared for the transition from television to cinema decided to quietly ensure that the film reflected his vision despite the constant interference by Carr, the man he referred to as ”a gay P.T. Barnum.”[11]

The epitome of the classic Hollywood showman, Carr relied on instinct honed over many years of experience unlike many contemporary studio executives, who rely on metrics, focus groups, and test screenings to guide their decisions. “Frankly, Allan Carr liked the old-fashioned sharp look so much that we decided that we would give it a go and find out whether or not the public would react to that look again,” Butler wrote in 1978. “I did try other things in the beginning, but none of them seemed to satisfy the memory he had of what musicals used to look like, so it was at his urging that I put that crisp look on film.”[12] This was reminiscent of the classical age of Hollywood musicals, starting with the 1933 release of 42nd Street, directed by Lloyd Bacon. It set the genre of extravagant production numbers and innovative cinematic techniques of overhead shots and the use of freely moving dollies and panoramic cameras.

Meanwhile, Carr bypassed Hollywood’s pool of experienced screenwriters to tap the un-produced Bronte Woodard for the adaptation. A novelist from Alabama with one book to his credit, Meet Me at The Melba, Woodard would later pen the screenplay for Can’t Stop the Music (1980), a film featuring The Village People, co-written by and produced by Carr. The script was honored with a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Screenplay.[13] It is unclear what made Carr assign the task of writing the screenplay to this relative unknown. Perhaps, for Carr, as with Kleiser, Woodard would be easier to control than an established professional.

The scribe’s lack of experience soon emerged. The first draft of the Grease screenplay submitted in December 1976 was bizarre, as this Vanity Fair magazine report indicates:

Carr’s vision included Danny Zuko as a busboy and gas-station attendant (doing a song called “Gas Pump Jockey”); Paul Lynde (at that time best known as Uncle Arthur on television’s Bewitched) as the Rydell High principal; Detroit Tigers star Mark “The Bird” Fidrych as the school baseball hero; Donny Osmond as Teen Angel; and the Beach Boys doing the show-stopping garage production number, “Greased Lightnin’.” There was even a scene with Lynde dressed as Carmen Miranda. (Mercifully, none of it came to pass.)[14]

This same article references “Carr’s vision”, reflected in the fact that although Woodard was credited for writing the screenplay, Carr awarded himself the writing credit for the adaptation.[15] This underscored the level of creative interference by Carr and the extent to which Butler, Kleiser, and Birch stressed to portray themselves as accommodating Carr’s wishes. Kleiser later said, “The reason I was able to make a lot of changes on the set was that Allan [Carr] was not present during much of the shoot.”[16] Rather than being seen as a passive participant, Kleiser successfully deconstructed the on-set power dynamics and found, at least to him, an effective non-confrontational way of realizing his film. The Vanity Fair piece does not provide a corroborating explanation for why Carr’s suggestions were not integrated into this instance. It is assumed in the Hollywood creative community that the best way of fending off ambitious but often untalented “suits” (studio executives and producers) is to nod and agree to all their suggestions and then ignore most of them, as the suits rarely remember their suggestions.[17] After many iterations, the familiar contours fell into place in the final draft of the script.[18] Kleiser believed the script changes contributed to the film’s success: “We made the movie more accessible to a wide audience, toning down some of the raunchy parts.  It’s amazing how much remains, though.”[19]

Although Grease’s original musical version pitched tension and angst with the infectious vitality of a score that signified the high points of Fifties’ rock ‘n’ roll, the film version’s plot is barely more than the plain contours of Good News, a popular 1927 Broadway musical that was revived in the 1970s but it failed on Broadway, despite the choreography, which won a Drama Desk Award in 1975. The plot was simple: Boy meets girl on summer vacation and he returns to school sure that he will never see her again. He boasts of his romantic conquest to his peers only to be surprised when the young woman is transferred to his school. In Grease, the young man struggles to maintain his machismo; he wins a dance contest with a former girlfriend, as the young woman witnesses the event, and the young couple finally reunites after he wins a drag race at the iconic concrete river bed in Los Angeles and scores his varsity letter.


[2] The Fabulous Allan Carr. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, Automat Pictures and Lottie and Lorraine Pictures, 2017.

[3] Butler, BILL. (1978). “Photographing Grease.” American Cinematographer, 59, pp. 760-765,796-797,824-826.

[4] Attended California State University Long Beach but did not graduate.

[5] Graduated with a degree in drama from Hofstra University, and did graduate work at the University of California-Los Angeles in filmmaking.

[6] Randal Kleiser (2018, February 14). Email interview.

[7] “New Again: Grease.” Interview Magazine, 1986 October,

[8] Butler.

[9] Randal Kleiser (2018, February 14). Email interview.

[10] John, Kose, S. Abraham Ravid, and Jayanthi Sunder. “Managerial ability and success: Evidence from the career paths of film directors.” Journal of Corporate Finance 44 (2017): 425-439.

[11] Randal Kleiser (2018, February 14). Email interview.

[12] Ibid.


[14] Callahan, Michael. “How Grease Beat the Odds and Became the Biggest Movie Musical of the 20th Century.” Vanity Fair, 2016 February,


[16] Randal Kleiser (2018, February 14). Email interview.

[17] Ross, Alexander G. “Creative Decision Making within the Contemporary Hollywood Studios.” Journal of Screenwriting 2.1 (2011): 99-116.

[18] Symmons, Tom. “American Graffiti (1973) and Grease (1978): The Fifties as Myth and Comment.” The New Hollywood Historical Film. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016, pp. 159-194. “The two most emblematic and commercially successful of these films—American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) and Grease (Kleiser, 1978)—account for their significance with audiences in the 1970s. Demonstrating the complexity and diversity of the Fifties, it contends that the popularity and legitimacy of nostalgia for the 1950s arose from the era’s oppositional relationship to the social upheaval, political turbulence, and economic uncertainty of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

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