Grease 2 is often written off as just another underwhelming Hollywood sequel – but it deserves more love than that, argues Em.
It’s 1st September, another academic year at Rydell High School. Principal McGee and her eccentric assistant Blanche prepare to welcome students over the Tannoy system. The familiar school colours of red and white adorn the letter jackets of the American football playing jocks, as groups of students evacuate from the typical American yellow school buses. We meet the cool kids. The T-Birds, black leather clad, collars firmly up with their hair greased back, and the Pink Ladies; beautiful, unattainable, popular; their pink satin jackets shining as brightly as their coiffed hair and glossy lipstick.
This is senior year. This is the year of their lives.
But this is not September 1958, and there’s no Summer Lovin’ this time around. There’s no Danny Zuko, nor Sandy Olsson; lest we forget their characters drove off in a 1948 Ford De Luxe convertible into the sky last we saw them. This is September 1961, and we are Back to School Again with leader of the Pink Ladies Stephanie Zinone, and Sandy’s cousin, the shy, clean-cut English exchange student Michael Carrington.
We have a new team of T-Birds and Pink Ladies. We have Grease 2.
The film is, and it’s not a revolution to say this, a sequel that hardly breaks barriers. It is a reproduction of Grease. Why would it not be, when the first was so wildly successful?
The movie adaptation of the 1971 stage musical Grease debuted to rave reviews and box office success in 1978. Thoughts immediately turned to an inevitable sequel, a way to cash in on the success of Grease, which became a cultural phenomenon.
Yet Grease 2, released the same week as E.T. The Extra Terrestrial in 1982, quickly became the relegated, unforgotten, derided sequel; destined for bargain boxes in video shops. The few who did appreciate it never actually had the audacity to admit it to anyone; it became a shameful secret that you’d keep to yourself while dancing along to the Grease Megamix at another school disco. It became The musical-that-shall-not-be-named. “Of course I prefer Grease to Grease 2!” I’d lie to my peers.
Truthfully though, and this is something that I can only now admit in my 30s, I believe that Grease 2 is better than Grease. It’s not just me who thinks so. Cult classic status beckons Grease 2 and I’m delighted for it. I can state my love and appreciation for it loud and proud.
On your first viewing of Grease 2, it seems, on first inspection, to be just a gender-swapped Grease rip-off. Stephanie (the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer in her debut leading role) is an independent thinker, who becomes smitten with a mysterious stranger, the Cool Rider, and it turns out by some stroke of luck that it’s Michael (Maxwell Caulfield, before Rex Manning Day was even a thing) in disguise.
But how could she have known that the English-accented Cool Rider was the same person as English-accented Michael?
Yeah, okay. Even I’ll cop to the contrivances of this script at times.
Grease 2 is seen, by many critics and the general public, as the nerdy copycat cousin of the superior Grease. The Michael to the Sandy, so to speak. If Grease consisted of the style, then Grease 2 consists of the substance. It’s far from entirely successful, and I’m not sure yet that the Criterion Collection need to be on the phone. But I believe its merits elevate it to a higher plane than its predecessor, namely in the way it treats its characters.
Take Stephanie Zinone. She’s not innocent like Sandy, or cruel like Rizzo. She’s the most popular girl at Rydell, and so the conventions might suggest she should be a mean girl, but she’s actually nice. To everyone.
Not only is she kind, she’s free-thinking. She dumps ex-boyfriend Johnny before the start of the semester because even a young woman in the 1960s knows when a man is no good for you. Stephanie isn’t defined by her relationship choices. She doesn’t want to be just someone’s chick. This is despite a bizarre rule that only T-Birds can date Pink Ladies (which seems weirdly incestuous when you only have four of each gender), Stephanie makes it a rule that she won’t date anyone unless he’s the right man for her. She wants a Cool Rider. She makes that known in song form, as one does.
Michael is similarly smitten with the gorgeous Stephanie, but she’s too cool for him. I hasten to reiterate, this is Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s too cool for us all.
He overhears her singing that she wants a Cool Rider, so he decides to start an initiative to write papers for his classmates to make money. Film Stories does not advocate cheating at school by the way, but Michael saves enough money to buy a dilapidated motorcycle, which he learns to restore and ride, so he can prove to Stephanie that he’s the right guy for her.
This isn’t just Danny Zuko donning a letter jacket one time, pretending to be nerdy and being instantly forgiven for his previous unwanted sexual advances, Michael works hard. Michael doesn’t change his personality. He enhances what he already has going for him.
Speaking of sexual advances, it can’t be Grease without some form of melodic innuendo, except Grease 2 ups that ante. Score Tonight? Let’s Do It For Our Country? Prowlin’? Charades…. okay maybe not Charades. Not to mention Reproduction. That’s quite literally about doing it.
Unlike the chaste Grease, Grease 2 is sex-positive. Not that anyone actually does it. It’s worth noting that Grease 2 isn’t entirely free from the problematic behaviour which blights its predecessor. Sharon is gaslighted by Louis that ‘nucleoid’ war has started, for instance. He suggests they do it for their country (ahem!) but Sharon is having none of it. She wants to do her national duty not by banging in a bomb shelter, but by being a nurse and tending to soldiers’ wounds. Plus one for feminism.
The women in this movie have agency. They may not be extremely well-rounded or developed. You’d be forgiven for confusing Paulette, Rhonda and Sharon, but Sharon’s dismissal of Louis is mirrored by Paulette’s take down of Johnny, after he messes her around one too many times. It’s the classic love triangle, except Paulette reminds Johnny that she’s worth something, and if he doesn’t recognise that, it’s his loss.
Ultimately, as much as Michael wants to be the Cool Rider, he charms Stephanie more by being himself. In an era of Photoshop, filters and blurred images, we’re perhaps all trying to be the Cool Rider, but genuinely it’s what’s under the filter (or indeed helmet) that counts.
Grease 2 is progressive, feminist and forward-thinking. It doesn’t end fantastically. The girl gets the guy. But I’m quite steadfast, it is still better than Grease, and that’s no longer a controversial statement. And with that, it seems only fitting that we end with a song…
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