Opinion: ‘Grease' reboot comes 45 years after the original – and right on time
The new series will follow the members of the titular girl gang as it leads and reframes the posse as what it represented in the era: a radical feminist act.
Ani Bundel is a professional blogger who has been doing so since 2010. She is a native of DC and the associate editor at WTEA/PBS British TV website Telly Visions. You can find her on Twitter at URL. This commentary is written by the author. CNN has more opinions.
In 1978, 'Grease" hit the big screens. It was a nostalgic play of an era which was rapidly disappearing. The movie, adapted from a Broadway show that premiered in 1972, depicts an unlikely romance between Sandy Olsson (the stereotypical goodie-two-shoes of the time) and Danny Zuko, the greaser badboy reminiscent of Elvis. Its reincarnation as a Paramount+ music TV series on Thursday could not have been more timely.
Paramount's producers of 'Grease,' a hit movie from the 1970s (whose original release brought in $740 million in today's figures), envisioned a franchise based on that film in the form multiple movies. In the 2020s when streaming is a constant and IP giants like Marvel or 'Yellowstone" are squeezed to the max, this may not seem all that revolutionary. Such ambitious plans were unheard of in 1978.
The company's foresight was not rewarded, perhaps because its 1982 follow-up, now-cult hit'Grease 2', was also ahead-of-its-time. The film flipped gender roles, with Michelle Pfeiffer playing Stephanie Zinone, the tough girl leader of the Pink Ladies girl gang, and Maxwell Caulfield as Michael Carrington, an exchange student who is prim and soft. The formula was soundly rejected, as were the much-closer-to-R-rated musical numbers.
Audiences are now primed to watch nostalgia franchises, and they want more diverse, edgier content that is socially relevant. This version of 'Grease', subtitled Rise of the Pink Ladies, achieves all of that by staying, ironically much closer to the original material.
Set four years prior to the events of the original film, 'Rise of the Pink Ladies" repositions the girls of the titular girl group as the series' leads and reframes the "posse" as what it was in the era: A radical feminist act. These pink-parkaed girls did it for themselves in a decade when pop culture said that women's greatest accomplishments were being asked to "go steady" or wear a lettered boy's jacket. It's not surprising that viewers of previous generations missed the point, given that the message of the movie is to "change everything about yourself in order to keep your guy."
The original Grease', written by Chicago-natives Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey in 1955, was a tribute and a realistic portrayal of the students Jacobs attended William Taft High School with during the 1950s. The Pink Ladies, a real girl group at the time, were researched by Annabel Oakes, who is best known for writing 'Minx.'
According to the Chicago Reader's history of the Pink Ladies, the group was formed in the early 1950s. This article was written by a preschooler who first heard about the "scary" group from her older sibling. It described the girls hanging out on bleachers wearing "varsity jackets with pink embroidery of a champagne bottle bubbling over." The scarves were tied tight at the chin and their hair billowed. Their eyes had a smoky makeup. Jacobs claimed that they had razor blades hidden in their bouffants.
Former members claimed there were dues and charitable giving, but others recalled it as a means to survive public high school, after years of attending Catholic schools. Pink Ladies groups gave Chicago's Polish, Italian and other immigrant children a sense that they belonged and were safe.
Male counterparts of the Pink Ladies embraced insults directed at them and even adopted one as their nickname. Drag-racing was also a popular pastime, as was fistfighting with a neighbor from another area. One former member said that getting busy behind those cars was a favorite pastime.
Before the edges of 'Grease,' were sanded down, its female characters made a kind of political statement. The original plan was for 'Grease to subvert the tropes and stereotypes of 1950s America. In most 1950s high-school films, the protagonist was a good girl who had to tame the bad boy. Sandy abandons her good girl persona and transforms into a wild child. This leads to the famous spandex and big haired ending.
The original was much more raw. It was not as family friendly when it first premiered in a Chicago nightclub, and had fewer songs. Sandy's biggest number, for instance, wasn't "Hopelessly Devoted to You" but rather, "Kiss It", and the lyrics clearly show that she isn't speaking. The original script, which was used for a 2011 stage production, received a rating of R if filmed.
In the original version, Chicago was much more prominent and local details were included. For example, the opening number, 'Foster Beach', was named after Foster Avenue Beach along Lakeshore Drive. Characters were also more easily identifiable as belonging to the Polish and Italian communities, notably Sandy Dumbrowski.
Rydell High, a Pennsylvania suburb high school, was the setting for the film when Paramount Pictures' summer lovein' images swept the nation in 1978. The story could have taken place anywhere in America, with any group of young people.
The overcrowded TV landscape may make it difficult for 'Grease' to stand out. Its uneven pace and unwillingness (looking at you 'Riverdale,') to emulate other teen shows with unrealistic and overly dramatic plotlines could cause the show's failure. Paramount+ will hopefully not pull the plug so quickly as they did when its last new class of greasers failed to meet expectations.
The series should give audiences a chance for them to take in the revival of the original setting of the show and the narrative of the mid-20th century, before the rise of feminists. This production, especially in light of the recent rollback in reproductive rights, is both revelatory and enlightening for those who have seen 'Grease in the theatre as well as for those who are just learning why 'Grease is forever the word.