Grease is a movie with a very specific, idiosyncratic, and telling pedigree: it was the highest-grossing film of the year immediately following Star Wars. And in that year, it spent 15 non-consecutive weekends as the #1 film at the U.S. domestic box office. Which was, for what it's worth, five weekends more than Star Wars itself had managed in its first release.

It's easy to overstate the impact that Star Wars had on the development of American popular filmmaking, but it's equally easy to over-rely on sentences beginning "it's easy to overstate...". It certainly cemented a few things that we can immediately see playing out in Grease, which otherwise resembles the space picture not at all: it was the ultimate Event Picture That You Had To See, the culmination of a process that The Godfather, The Exorcist and Jaws had all furthered; and certainly the extraordinarily sustained run Grease enjoyed as the biggest film in the country suggests that it enjoyed that status. Star Wars also ignited, though I do not know if it was immediately recognised at the time, the economic trend by which the tastes of teenagers (boy teenagers, generally, though that wouldn't seem to apply to Grease so much) dictate what gets made for everybody. And Grease is a great big ol' high school movie, one that is presumably driven by nostalgia for the 1950s, but is so conspicuously contemporary in its attitudes, tastes, and style that it seems to be mocking that decade far more than it panders to the presumptive audience's memories of the time.

It is tempting to the point that I cannot ignore it to compare the film with American Graffiti, for they serve to bracket a certain important period in the American cinema: the 1973 film was released in the most glorious peak of the New Hollywood, while 1978 finds us in the first year of that movement's symbolic death (about which we'll have a great deal to say later). And despite how much more American Graffiti openly pines for the days it depicts, seeing in them a warm glow of "we were so much more innocent!" while Grease snottily decrees "hell no, we weren't, we just couldn't talk about it in mixed company", American Graffiti ends up being the far more sober and grown-up work, capping its fuzzy nostalgia with a gut punch in which one of its four protagonists is dead, one is MIA in Vietnam, one is dodging the draft in Canada, and worst of all, one sells insurance in Modesto. It's a sudden, merciless nod to the realities of history and maturation that defies the simple pleasures the film has apparently been peddling. Whereas Grease, after its sarcasm and filthy-minded subversion of '50s pop culture have wrapped up, rather genteelly suggests that cute young hetero couples are just so golly-darn cute, and aren't we all happy? Listen to how happy everybody is as they sing!

And this itself speaks to the huge gap between 1973 and 1978 in film: Star Wars had come along after eleven of the harshest years of American history and art in history, years marked by war, political conspiracy, failed cultural revolutions, and a general lack of accountability for virtually anybody responsible for making things shitty, and it had presented an easily accessible story about how clear-cut good guys could win the day against clear-cut bad guys with virtually no personal losses or repercussions. After years of cinematic anti-heroes, ambivalent half-victories, and serious engagement with human ugliness, a huge, successful, beloved movie had suddenly been fun. And fun would only become more and more of a mainstay in the top echelons of pop cinema, a trend that arguably wasn't even challenged until 2008's The Dark Knight.

Grease is, whatever its other limitations, unambiguously and unrelentingly fun. It's a frivolous "mismatched teens fall in love" comedy regularly punctuated by bubbly songs that are easy to sing along to after you've heard them even just once, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John at the height of their popularity (though hers was in music, not film): and unlike Travolta's other big musical that year (Saturday Night Fever, a 1977 release that did most of its impressive box-office in '78), it acknowledges human ugliness only to gloss over it. One character gets a big dramatic musical number solely to demonstrate her fortitude and terror at the thought of being pregnant, a subplot that gets dismissed two scenes later with an idle "nope, never mind! tee-hee!", and that's about it as far as anything truly dramatic or sordid goes.

Outside of the fact that the musical genre had been on the outs for years prior to Saturday Night Fever (Robert Stigwood, producer of that movie and this, would quickly overplay his hand, shepherding the outlandishly bad Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band into theaters just over a month after Grease and effectively re-killing the genre), the reasons that Grease would be a big hit are easy enough to see: pretty people in a likable story with earwormy songs is a pretty hard formula to bet against. Other than, again, the musical thing, it's not even impossible to imagine a version of Grease being equally huge in the modern day (it's kind of like a funnier, real-world Twilight). The biggest barrier to its success, and one that ended up not mattering more to this film than to any number of its successors, is that Grease isn't very good: out-and-out bad, in some ways, though mostly it's a satisfactory execution of a concept that had to serve too many masters to ever work successfully.

The biggest problem, easily, is that Jim Jacobs & Warren Casey's 1971 stage musical, a pastiche of '50s pop styles, was crudely remolded into a pop star vehicle for Newton-John, leaving it without any kind of consistent musical identity. Right from the very start, when we hear Frankie Valli singing the title song newly composed by Barry Gibb (undoubtedly on the strength of Gibb's work on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), and we enter the disco era without even the most modest, surface-level attempt to anchor the film in anything resembling the '50s; even more perplexingly, the song plays out over animated credits that take all their aesthetic cues from the underground comics of the late '60s, giving us a film that, by the five-minute mark, has already split its loyalties between three entirely incompatible periods in American pop culture history. The '60s, at least, never return: from here on out, it's a duel for supremacy between Jacobs/Casey material like "Summer Days" and "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" on the one hand, and originals by Newton-John's guy, John Farrar, "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want". And they are fine Olivia Newton-John singles; but they are clamorous, weird intrusions into Grease, even if "You're the One That I Want" is almost unarguably the most living, energetic sonic moment in the entire feature.

The other, in some ways littler problems, are numerous. There are the visibly ancient "high schoolers" (Travolta, at 24, was the baby; Stockard Channing, as the head "bad girl with a heart of gold" Rizzo, was 34 and looked every day of it), breaking the film's reality beyond the point that it's even slightly fair to expect us to compensate for it. There's the ugly morality of a climax that demands the female lead to transform into a heightened parody of sexually loose femininity, while letting the male lead off the hook for making a similar change almost in the same instant that he makes it. There's the wildly uneven sound mixing, most apparent whenever Channing sings, sounding like she has been abruptly tossed into a styrofoam box with a microphone: "Sandra Dee" is, legitimately, one of the worst-sounding numbers in any major film musical outside of those rocky years during the transition to sound.

And there, most dispiritingly of all, no real energy. Director Randal Kleiser made his leap from TV with this film, but that's not really the problem: he and cinematographer Bill Butler do perfectly fine work keeping the lighting, framing, and focus complex enough that the widescreen frame seems to be completely inhabited in ways that side-step all the usual pitfalls of TV-to-movie evolution. The greater issue is that he frequently doesn't seem to have any sense of where to put the camera in the first place, or what to do with the people in front of it. Virtually all of the songs taken from the show are staged with a theatrical flatness that assumes a proscenium stage, and the camera very frequently fails to respect this: the "let's build a fancy car so we can get laid" number "Greased Lightning" is an especially galling example, with Travolta's Danny and his gang, the T-Birds, striking poses for, and singing to an audience that very frequently does not seem to exist. The choreography doesn't involve the camera, it happens almost in despite of the camera, and this is deadly for cinematic musicals. The original numbers fare hardly better: "You're the One That I Want" has musical enefrgy to spare, and it's staged half in a carnival funhouse, and there's not one single dance move that explicitly takes advantage of the sliding, slanting, floors of that environment, not even when Travolta and Newton-John are walking down steps that, in every other funhouse I've ever seen, were moving back and forth in opposite directions. And God knows what's up with the big school dance competition, a mystifying slurry of odd cutting and weird gags.

The characters fare no better than the dancing. It cannot be a coincidence that the most sure-footed and lively performances are from two of the old Hollywood pros carted in, Joan Blondell and Eve Arden as a tart waitress and humorless school principal, respectively (Arden's reaction shots are, easily, the best thing in the film). For the most part, they could just go out and do. The people who have to be guided - that is, the leads, non-actor Newton-John especially - are simply stuck with whatever beats they start pursuing in any given scene, lacking consistent across the film, and in Travolta's case, indulging himself in some really odd facial expressions and line deliveries where it sounds like he's adding vowels and voiced Hs all over the place. Channing deserved combat pay and a Medal of Honor for managing to be so sharp and snarky and electrifying as the sarcastic slut Rizzo; she is leagues ahead of any other "teen" in the film, creating a sustained, hugely likable character whose travails become generally captivating while the generic "will they stick together, or will she ever get disgusted by his little hypocrisies and petty judgments come on, why is this sexist-ass plot the only part of the film that's not aware it's the 1970s out there?" storyline between the main lovers plays out with no speck of originality or implication that actually this couple is really special and has actual, discernible sexual charisma.

It is, all told, anonymous and semi-competent filmmaking with no real personality, pepped up by the fake energy it imports by having catchy but not exactly great songs. I cannot in fairness call it "bad", but even less are there more than a few incidental moments (part of the "dancing on the bleachers" phase of "Summer Nights", the staging of a car race, Frankie Avalon's meta-narratively delightful cameo) that I am even temporarily tempted to call "good". It's safe, broadly appealing but equally generic filmmaking that just happened to hit a huge chord with the right people at the right time that it earned an enormous pile of money totally incommensurate with its quality. And so we enter the modern era of the Hollywood film.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1978
-The first of the self-conscious post-Star Wars blockbusters, Superman makes us believe a man can fly
-John Carpenter's Halloween makes us believe that dazzling profits can be made by killing slutty babysitters and letting virginal babysitters live
-Every Which Way But Loose makes us believe that Clint Eastwood and that orangutan are, like, actually buddies, man

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1978
-Bergman (Ingmar) meets Bergman (Ingrid) for the first and only time in the beautiful harsh Swedish family drama Autumn Sonata
-Ermanno Olmi wins the Palme d'Or for his epic of 19th Century Lombard peasants, The Tree of Wooden Clogs
-Martin Rosen makes Watership Down in Great Britain, widely acclaimed as one of the most horrifying, nightmare-inducing animated children's films in history