Movie Postmortems: GREASE 2

by John S. 

This is the final entry in the Movie Postmortems series. It will be replaced by a new series called X Marks the Spot, which will feature mini-reviews of films in specific sections of the vast treasure map that is the Scarecrow movie collection. Join the hunt.

THE CASUALTY: Grease 2

THE CASE HISTORY: 1978. The cinematic adaptation of the popular 1971 Broadway/off-Broadway musical “Grease” is a gigantic hit. It becomes the most commercially-successful film of that year, besting even Superman. The soundtrack to Grease also lands in the #2 spot for annual sales, just behind the album for Saturday Night Fever. However, Grease is not just popular at the box-office. It is also one of the best-reviewed films of 1978 – and hailed as one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Naturally, talks of a sequel begin.

Filming for Grease 2 begins in 1981. Original creators Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey are not involved in development. Nor is Randall Kleiser, Grease’s director. Instead, Patricia Birch, the choreographer of the first film and the Broadway production, is stepping into the director’s seat. Replacing Travolta and Newton-John as the main couple are relative unknowns Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer. At just over $11 million, Grease 2’s budget is nearly twice that of the original. Anticipation and expectations are high.

June 1982. Grease 2 opens on a particularly busy summer box-office weekend. Popular holdovers like Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, Rocky III, and Poltergeist are still attracting audiences. But it is the other new film also debuting that weekend which steals the Top Spot: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. By contrast, Grease 2 opens at Number 5, behind all the films mentioned before, raking in about half of what Grease made in its opening weekend four years before in 1978.

And then there are the reviews – which are almost all negative. Most critics tear the film apart, slamming everything from the dance numbers, to the songs, to the cast. The general consensus is Grease 2 pales considerably in comparison to its predecessor. It soon fades away at the box-office with a very lackluster total North American gross of just over $15 million. Considering Grease raked in almost $160 million, this is a stunning decline.

For the last time: what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: Unfortunately, most critics were right about Grease 2 being a pale imitation of its predecessor. For starters, it never feels like a story unfolding in 1961. By contrast, Grease gave the vivid sense of being set in 1959 which helped with the flavor and tone of the narrative. Grease 2, however, often feels like it is set smack dab in the middle of 1982. This gives an “off” feeling to the proceedings that is hard to shake. This anachronistic disconnect pretty much lasts the whole film.

The songs and dance numbers, a key component of the previous film’s success, are also largely pedestrian here. Apart from a promising opening sequence (“Back to School”), an enjoyably edgy first-act Pfeiffer number (“Cool Rider”), and a refreshingly old-fashioned third-act sequence (“Girl For All Seasons”), the rest of the musical productions are fairly bland. Compare this with Grease’s line-up which were consistently all homeruns; three solid songs are simply not enough to save Grease 2.

As for the leads, Michelle Pfeiffer and Maxwell Caulfield have suffered in comparison to Olivia Netwon-John and John Travolta.  The truth is, they’re fine. It’s just that their predecessors cast a very long shadow that is hard to escape. Pfeiffer and Caulfield have a nice chemistry that is not sufficiently explored. Even at that early stage of her career, it was clear Pfeiffer had that alluring but elusive “X Factor” all stars have – and she and Caulfield are two of the few bright spots of the film. They deserved a better musical vehicle.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: While most elements of Grease 2 (excluding its two leads) are a step down from Grease, maybe it would have fared better if it had been written and produced as an original musical set in 1982 with no relation to Grease. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – and the inevitable, unavoidable comparisons to the universally-adored first film sealed its fate. Sequels to classic films will always have a hard road to tread – and Grease 2 is a prime example.

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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