Systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic.
After two years of pre-production and a year’s worth of rehearsal, Grease Live! debuted on Jan. 31, 2016, as a three-hour long TV mega-event, earning blockbuster ratings and exploding on social media. Nothing can quite recapture the feel of watching it all as it happens, but now you can nonetheless relive the memories with Grease Live! on DVD.
It’s the 1950s. Good girl Sandy (Julianne Hough, Rock of Ages) and bad boy Danny Zuko (Aaron Tveit, Graceland) fell in love over the summer. When reunited after school begins, their differing social circles keep them apart. Meanwhile, Rizzo (Vanessa Hudgens, High School Musical), leader of the badass Pink Ladies, has a pregnancy scare. Kenickie (Carlos PenaVega, Big Time Rush) of the T-Birds wants to fix up his clunker car for a race against a rival gang. Beauty school wannabe Frenchie (Carly Rae Jepson, singer of “Call Me Maybe”) worries about her future. There are about a dozen other subplots.
The real story of Grease Live! is not Danny and Sandy, it’s how the producers took over the Warner Brothers lot for one night, devoting multiple soundstages and outdoor areas to this single production. As the characters go from place to place, the camera follows them from set to set, or even building to building. The high school, the gym, the soda shop, the drive-in, and even the finale carnival are all here, transforming the Warner lot into Grease Land. We get to see the live audience in spaces around the sets, and there’s an overall feel of “we’re letting you see behind the curtain” to the production. This is not so much a remake of Grease, as it is a “we’re throwing a Grease-themed party and everyone’s invited.”
The emphasis is on the musical numbers, and the various ways the producers have made them as big and cinematic as possible within the live-TV constraints. This includes elaborate choreography, often with dozens of folks dancing and going at it at once. There are also plenty of “how’d they do that?” moments, with lightning-fast costume and set changes. These serve to make the show feel fresh and unpredictable, even when recreating scenes from a movie we’ve all seen before. Speaking of which, Grease Live! is far more interested in the 1978 film than the original Broadway show. Although some of musical’s original songs have been restored for this version, Grease Live! seems content with mostly mimicking the movie, lifting dialogue, costumes, and choreography directly from the film version.
The entire cast jumps into this with bombastic energy and enthusiasm, so much so that I get tired just thinking about them. Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit sing and dance with gusto, even though Tveit doesn’t attempt Travolta’s famous high note at the end of “Summer Nights.” Jordan Fisher (Teen Beach Movie) does the teen heartthrob thing with his romanticized take on “Those Magic Changes.” Keke Palmer glams it up for “Freddy My Love,” and Kether Donahue steals a lot of scenes as the wacky Jan.
Cameos! Celebrity TV mainstay Mario Lopez, no stranger to cheesy teen television thanks to his Saved by the Bell years, plays Vic Fontaine as all smiles and charm. Eve Plumb of the original The Brady Bunch is unrecognizable as the T-Birds’ auto stop teacher. Boyz II Men reminds us how talented they are with a bluesy take on “Beauty School Dropout.” Comedienne Ana Gasteyer provides great comic timing as the principal. Finally, Barry Pearl and Didi Conn of the 1978 Grease return to pass the torch, and I dare anyone’s heart not to melt at how adorable Didi Conn is.
Special mention must be made of Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo. The night of the live broadcast, it was widely publicized that her father had died the day before, and that she was dedicating her performance to him. Because of the whole the-audience-is-backstage-alongside-the-actors vibe that Grease Live! is going for, most everyone knew this before watching. Her Rizzo is as tough and cool as expected, but then the highlight of the entire event comes when Hudgens fuels “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” with all her raw emotion, connecting with the audience in a big way.
What doesn’t work? There’s quite a lot of padding and scenes that go nowhere, no doubt to accommodate set and wardrobe changes going on elsewhere on the lot. It was raining during the opening number, so most of the cast performs under brightly-colored umbrellas. Producers were allegedly unhappy about this, but singer Jessie J. has no problem singing the title song under the rain, Gene Kelly style. For Carly Rae Jepsen’s solo, she gets a new song written for this production, “All I Need Is An Angel.” The song comes across as a little too modern, and not in the style of Grease. But, to be fair, a lot of Broadway fans said the same thing about the songs written especially for the ’78 film, and those tunes are part of the Grease pantheon now. So who knows what folks will think of this one in thirty years? Finally, Grease Live! does not bother to update or comment on the original ending’s outdated and downright confusing take on gender roles, opting instead for a nostalgia-fueled fun-time Grease party.
Video on the Grease Live! DVD is mostly good, with bright colors and natural flesh tones. There are times, though, when the camera does a long pan across the room and the picture gets all herky-jerky (yes, that is the correct technical term) which can be distracting. Audio is 2.0 stereo, which is good but not as much as a fully immersive 5.1 track could have been. Perhaps we can chalk this up to the limitations of recording the show live. The night of the original broadcast, the audio messed up twice, during “Hand Jive” and “Hopelessly Devoted,” and these flaws have been corrected on the DVD’s soundtrack. The disc comes with six promotional featurettes, mostly lightweight interviews with the cast.
Grease Live! might not succeed on a storytelling level, but it succeeds wildly as a pure media experience. It combines basic moviemaking with the Broadway stage, concert films, and even live sporting events to create a style wholly its own. It’s a familiar tale told in a way that is totally new. Check it out.