Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a musical sequel to a movie that was based on a stage musical, though it was not based on a stage musical itself. This exact situation has, as far as I can tell, only happened one other time, which made this week's subject inevitable.

There's something important about Grease 2 that is, I think, much too easy to overlook, so I shall lead off with it: the film's director and choreographer are the same person, Patricia Birch. She had been associated with Grease since the show opened off-Broadway in 1972, and choreographed the dances in the beloved, massively successful 1978 film adaptation of that show; Grease 2 represents her only stint as a feature director. I don't want to go too far in saying that this is necessarily a good thing, for first-time directors of big, complicated productions that are sequels to gigantic financial hits should never make us feel all that good. And just because Birch knew Grease like nobody's business, that doesn't mean she was automatically great at her job: the choreographer of the stillborn-in-all-ways 1977 film version of A Little Night Music does not deserve any benefit of the doubt.

All those cautions aside, it is indeed a clear benefit to Grease 2 that Birch served in that dual capacity. For whereas the first Grease was haunted by musical numbers in which groups of dancers energetically presented themselves to empty spaces where no viewer dwelled, in which characters skipped and cavorted in directions that were horribly ill-used by the camera angles, the numbers in Grease 2 are all being staged for us - the movement of bodies and the movement of the camera are designed to commingle and allow us the best angles to appreciate what those bodies are doing. This is the only respect in which Grease 2 is ever better than Grease. Or nearly the only respect, I should say: in a vacuum, having Michelle Pfeiffer in a movie is obviously better than having Olivia Newton-John in a movie, although Grease 2 doesn't entirely live in a vacuum.

Aye, yes! Michelle Pfeiffer! Thirty years and then some after the movie premiered, Grease 2 is notable for only two reasons. One is the vaguely nauseated, hurt look on somebody's face when they first learn that a sequel to Grease exists. The other is that Pfeiffer's fourth movie was her first headlining role, and thus all of her fame recedes back to this point, a year before Scarface, three years before Ladyhawke, and five years before The Witches of Eastwick, which I think to be the point at which her movie stardom finally calcified and was never again to be taken away from her. It wouldn't be quite true to claim that you can tell, based on the onscreen evidence, that Pfeiffer was going to become PFEIFFER!, if only because you can't tell, based on the onscreen evidence, that any member of the Grease 2 cast was still going to have a viable future career in commercial cinema by the end of the film's first week in release. But if somebody was going to, Pfeiffer was pretty obviously going to be that person.

For one thing, the camera adores her with rabid passion: some people just got it, and even with the overdetermined readings of some really shitty lines of dialogue, it's clear that Pfeiffer was one of them. She does the most amazing things with her eyes, which feel like they're boring into the actors opposite her, despite the loose posture of her body, the way she holds herself to seem like every limb is flopping independent of every other, and yet her entire form creates an image of this perfect self-confident insouciance. Her character, Stephanie Zinone, is a tough snot, curt and peremptory, hugely impatient with people being dummies around her, controlling the spaces she moves through less as a power trip than because of her evident belief that the world would not dare to try and slow her down any. Everything about Pfeiffer's body language pounds that home, from her cocked head and curled lip to the vaguely hostile hold of her arms. And yet, despite all of this, she's enormously attractive - in the sexual sense, of course, but in some more amorphous way, that strange and unquantifiable "charisma" that is the final barrier separating out extraordinarily beautiful people with some talent from that most rarefied echelon of humanity, the Movie Star. Watching her here is exactly like watching early Cary Grant: the line readings are off, she's not quite orienting herself to her co-stars right, you can watch her thinking about her choices a bit too mechanically, and she is irresistible, on a level rather more animistic than sensual.

So Grease 2 has that going for it. It has very little else. Birch stages the numbers well, as I've said, but when confronted with the glob of songs provided to the movie, a little bit of staging isn't apt to do much to help. The songs are the result of a mess of writers, though Louis St. Louis, who wrote one song for Grease and produced the sequel's whole soundtrack, is the name that crops up the most often. If I were to be kind (and there's no reason not to try to be kind), I'd suggest that the songs in Grease 2 generally sound much more like something that might have actually played on the radio in 1961 than the songs in the first movie, with their need to do double-duty as singles for Newton-John, sounded like 1959. I'll even cop to enjoying "Reproduction", written by Dennis Linde, a bright, smutty song in which a bunch of high schoolers find a way to make a lecture about pollination into a lewd celebration of fucking; it is crass, but it is about crass minds, and it bounces in a corny way that feels especially like something that could have reasonably shown up in a malt shop, especially with its contrast between the girls' falsettos and the boys' exaggerated baritones.

I'll extend no such kind words to any other of the film's 13 original songs, and certainly not to any other aspect of the film. To say that Grease 2 is a virtual remake of Grease is only to point out a bare fact, one that the film seems anxious for us to note: the driving force of the plot is once again that a goody two-shoes and a sardonic rebel have fallen for each other, and it takes the whole movie for the goody two-shoes to slut it up enough to impress the rebel, only now the genders have been swapped. Our square exchange student this time is Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield), who is identified immediately as first cousin to the Australian Sandy from last time; his opposite number is, of course, Stephanie, leader of the Pink Ladies at Rydell High School, the gang that has as a matter of policy always restricted its romantic favors to the T-Birds, the school's biker gang. One might cling to the slenderest hope that screenwriter Ken Finkleman might have come up with something interesting about this; some small fissure in Eisenhower/Kennedy-era gender roles that might make things sharper and interesting. Instead, the plot is that Michael trains himself to be a stunt biker over the course of the school year, and Stephanie finds herself aroused by the mystery of who that masked man is, anyway. Not exactly a bad plot, though one that needs to have its absurdities stressed if it's not going to feel just damn stupid, and neither Finkleman nor Birch do such stressing. And even if they had, the film's ability to function as a romantic comedy would undoubtedly founder on the total lack of chemistry between Pfeiffer and Caulfield.

Around this central non-event, many wan subplots swirl. The most tenacious of these involve the rehearsal for a Ziegfeld Follies-style number for the school talent show, which also takes the entire school year; for the most part, the film consists only of bite-sized scenes of the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds floating through space. The story suffers greatly from the lack of a more clearly defined conflict between groups of teenagers, or even between the teenagers and the teachers, who mostly just show up because those were the only actors from the first movie who could be dragged back for cameos. The big exception is Didi Conn, who has been enticed back to play beauty school droupout Frenchy, and whose presence is announced in a great big fashion at the start before the movie completely forgets that she's a character. There's a weird sideshow where Tab Hunter and Connie Stevens have been added as the biology teacher and drama teacher, respectively, the latter being unpleasantly amenable to being catcalled by her male teenage students.

And speaking of unpleasant, weird sideshows, there's an achingly long sequence where T-Bird Louis (Peter Frechette) has his buddies arrange a fake nuclear attack while he and Pink Lady Sharon (Maureen Teefy) are in the school's fallout shelter, so that he can try to trick her into having sex while singing the droning, double-entendres of "Do It for Our Country", and I believe the song's title tells you what  you need to know about the level of lyrical cleverness on display.

The film is, all in all, aimless and horribly dull, with its vigorous group dances failing to compensate for the shitty, insipid songs, and the film's meager attempts to comically treat the culture of the early '60s falling below even the slapdash attempt at satirising the late '50s in the first movie. It's got Pfeiffer, and nothing can take that away, but if we did take that away, all we'd have left would be a bloated grind, a weak musical from one of the genre's lowest points, and one of the most self-evidently unjustified sequels on the books. It makes me feel defensive longing for the first Grease, for God's sake and I barely tolerate that movie at the best of times.