The musical romantic comedy, Grease, was one of the biggest hit films of 1978, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John as Danny and Sandy – two very different high school students who fall in love in 1950s America. The film charts their romance, with all its comic mishaps, to a soundtrack of original rock ‘n’ roll songs.
Grease was a massive commercial success, grossing $394.9 million at the worldwide box office. It became the biggest musical hit ever, even surpassing the Sound of Music! 40 years later, it remains the fourth highest grossing musical in history.
Based on the 1971 stage show of the same name, Grease was written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey and set in 1959, at the fictional Rydell High School.
The plot follows a group of working-class teenagers as they experience the difficulties of peer pressure, love, values, morals, politics, rebellion, gang warfare, teenage pregnancy and other social issues. The title, Grease, related to the slicked-back, greased, Teddy-boy style of the youths’ hair.
The rock ‘n’ roll score of the original stage show in Chicago was described as raunchy, aggressive, raw and even vulgar. Subsequent live performances on Broadway and in the West End revealed a toned-down version of the original score.
The film version of Grease was also toned down, with some of the song lyrics being altered to make it acceptable for mass consumption and the mainly teenage cinema audiences.
Travolta’s Danny Zuko is the swaggering leader of teenage gang the T-Birds. He meets naïve Australian expat Sandy during the summer holidays and has a light-hearted romance with her. They are both shocked when Sandy is unexpectedly sent to Rydell High for the autumn term and bumps into Danny again.
Back with his gang, Danny has to hide his real feelings for Sandy, who is a “square”. His arrogant, bad boy personality shocks his former love. Sandy is befriended by dizzy Frenchy who is a member of streetwise girl gang the Pink Ladies.
As Frenchy tries to introduce the innocent Aussie into the gang, there’s some resistance from gang leader Rizzo – Danny’s former fling. However, as with all good romantic comedies, it all turns out well in the end.
Despite its commercial success, the film received only one Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for Sandy’s ballad, Hopelessly Devoted to You. Its biggest hit was You’re the One That I Want, performed by Travolta and Newton-John, which was number one in the UK and the US.
Written by Barry Gibb and sung by Frankie Valli, the title track, Grease, sold seven million copies worldwide and reached number one in the US and number three in the UK.
One of Grease’s most iconic hit songs is Greased Lightning, sung by Danny and his fellow T-Bird gang members, including his best friend Kenickie.
They burst into raunchy song and dance moves, as they renovate Kenickie’s old car (that he bought from the wages of his summer job) into a lean, mean, racing machine called Greased Lightning.
When the song was released on record, it didn’t chart as high as anticipated, reaching number 11 in the UK and number 47 in the US. This was blamed on the fact some radio stations refused to play it, because it contained lyrics filled with sexual innuendo. The theme of the song implied that the sleek, shiny, superfast car would be a magnet for picking up girls.
It was one of only a handful of songs from the original stage version of the musical to survive virtually unaltered in its transition to film. The lyrics were rather risqué, and even contained some four-letter expletives in the stage version.
Later, as the musical became immensely popular, a sanitised set of Greased Lightning lyrics replaced the originals to ensure it was suitable for school performances. In addition, in some edits of the film for television, the producers have cut out any offending lyrics to make it acceptable for general broadcast.
Why ‘Greased Lightning’?
We’ve all heard the phrase “like greased lightning” and understand it’s used to describe something that moves exceptionally quickly, but have you ever wondered about the origins of the expression?
Lightning is known to be very quick. In fact, scientists estimate the speed of a bolt of lightning is around 220 million miles per hour – one-third of the speed of light! It is also accepted in the world of engineering and manufacturing that lubricants, such as grease and oil, make machinery run more smoothly.
It follows that if you grease up lightning, it will move even more quickly than it does already, so greased lightning is the ultimate in speed!
The expression is far from modern. It was first noted in mainstream culture in January 1833, when a newspaper, the Boston, Lincoln, Louth and Spalding Herald, published an article about a gentleman who was described as speaking “as quick as greased lightning.”
The lyrics of Greased Lightning are very clever. Not only do they suggest the revamped car’s incredible speed, they also describe in detail the car’s “new pistons, plugs and shocks” working to perfection in the well-oiled engine.
Hence greased lightning is a fast car, a slang term for speed and a legendary American musical song, all rolled into one!
Although the musical, Grease, makes “greased lightning” sound like a highly-desirable and exciting term, in reality, the dangers of a bolt of lightning are very real and not something you would wish to encounter!
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