Nostalgia in “Grease”

Randal Kleiser’s 1978 Grease is the epitome of nostalgia for both adolescence and the 1950s. Interestingly, this film focuses on the same stage of adolescence and same era as The Last Picture Show, but presents these subjects in a very different light. Every scene of Grease displays a candy-coated image of the era and youth. It gives us a 1950s that is pure, bright, and colorful. The Rydell high schoolers have enduring friendships and long-lasting romance. In contrast, The Last Picture Show is shot in black and white and rife with broken friendships, moping teenagers, exploitative sex, and tumbleweeds.

In his article “Ciné Paranoia: Conspiracy Unmasked, 1973-75” J. Hoberman cites the mid 1970s as a time of economic and social turmoil. The economy had slowed down, gas prices had risen, and Hollywood was still feeling the aftermath of the Manson murders. He notes that many movies made during this era are conspiracy-themed. Grease, made in 1978, has moved very far away from this. Not once does Grease acknowledge the American government or social ills. Rather, the audience is distracted from reality and forced to focus on the simplistic themes and development of romance and friendships between the characters. Because Grease was made when the 1970s was drawing to a close, it represents a desire to return to simpler times.

The desire for a simpler, cheerier society is evident in the film’s mise-en-scene. This clip presents us with a very idealized image of what high school is. The pastel colors, old-fashioned costumes and dance moves represent a nostalgic look at adolescence. This last day of high-school is dreamy and upbeat, while the last day of high-school in The Last Picture Show was sad and awkward, especially for the protagonist Sonny. The placement of this scene on a fair ground, replete with dated rides and games, adds to the fantastical quality of the scene. And let’s not forget the blissful ending of the movie, in which the flying “Grease Lightning” lifts a happily reunited, leather-clad Danny and Sandy into the clouds.

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4 responses to “Nostalgia in “Grease”

  1. You make a good point about this type of nostalgia being different from what we’ve seen in other films of the time. Instead of showing stark truth, it’s an escape, quite like the popularity of musicals in the 1930s when people were looking for escapism from the hard times of the Depression. I wonder if we should consider this film more or less prolific because it broke the trend of dark conspiracy themes. I mean, it does end with the car basically turning into Chitty Chitty Bang Bang so that’s a point down…

  2. I also find it interesting that throughout the film it actually is centered around similar themes as the Last Picture show. It covers the intimacy and the exploitation of sex, with Sandy and Danny in contrast with the Pink Ladies and various boys. The teenager are often depressed from love and anxious over rivalry. Add the boys are always clad in black, as well as Sandy at the end. However the end brings in this return to the joys of ’50s childhood, in which they are all wearing bright colors and singing incoherently.

  3. laurenlbird: Interesting observation about “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, which was made exactly 10 years before. Maybe the ending of “Grease” was a subtle (or not so subtle) homage?

  4. I agree that it is very interesting to compare “Last Picture Show“ with “Greae“, since they obviously differ immensely in their depiction of youth and nostalgia. However, I was thinking about the role of women in these movies. In “Last Picture Show“ none of the women is happy. In Grease they all get happy somehow in the end. I think it is interesting that although it may be nostalgic about simpler times, it also seems to support the present for modern women, since Sandy only gets her happy ending when she is willing to get rid of her sort of more prudish and well-behaved image that is connected to the her past.

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