We're Gonna Score Tonight: How Grease 2 is Also the Word
Let’s get this out of the way: there’s no logical reason for Grease 2 to exist, but thank God that it does. Though the original Grease was then the highest-grossing musical of all time, the story of star-crossed lovers Sandy and Danny, the T-Birds, and the rest of Rydell High had about as much depth as Bobby Darin’s “Queen of the Hop,” so what more could be said? A sequel filmed four years later, with a mostly new cast and a plot that seemed, on the surface, like a weak copy of the original should have been shuffled into the cinematic dustbin alongside Teen Wolf Too and Mannequin: On The Move. But Grease 2 has survived, slowly amassing a cult following thanks to cable re-runs (I first caught it on VH1) and counting actors like Keri Russell and June-Diane Raphael among its fans. And speaking for myself here: I don’t give a damn about Grease, but I’d fly a motorcycle into a pool at a high school hula party for Grease 2.
Two years after Sandy and Danny drifted away in that flying car, Grease 2 begins with the dawning of a new school year in John F. Kennedy’s America. Truthfully, the first few minutes of the movie don’t inspire much confidence. The opening number, in which gyrating teens bemoan that they’re going “back to school…again!” might as well be titled, “Hope You Liked the First Movie, Here’s More of the Same.” Nor does it seem like a good sign when we see the only returning cast members are Frenchy, Miss McGee, and….Eddie Deezen?
But Grease 2 becomes something special when Michelle Pfeiffer struts onscreen in sunglasses, a messy ponytail, and a satin Pink Ladies jacket thrown over a sweatshirt. In her first major movie role (seriously, she went from this straight to Scarface), Pfeiffer has an immediate star quality, and like Riff Randall in Rock and Roll High School or the goth witches of The Craft, you know immediately that she’s the coolest girl in school. Having broken up with schmuck-y T-Bird leader Johnny over the summer, Stephanie needs a change in her life, and Sandy’s new-in-town cousin Michael (Maxwell Caulfield, who is English, not Australian, but never mind) loves her at first sight. Stephanie won’t settle for anything less than the “Cool Rider” of her dreams, however, so Michael trades in his sweater vests for a motorcycle and leather jacket.
What is it about Grease 2 that inspires such devotion in its fans, especially young women? The simplest answer is that its gender politics are a vast improvement over its predecessor’s. There probably isn’t a Grease thinkpiece written in the last ten years that doesn’t raise an eyebrow at the message of its finale, where Sandy gets a vampy, cigarette-smoking makeover to impress a boy and fit in with the clique that ridiculed her for being “lousy with virginity.” This was intended to be a subversion of the usual ‘50s movie ending where the greaser is redeemed by the poodle-skirted good girl and perhaps worked better in the grittier Broadway play, but today it adds a sour taste to the bubblegum sweetness of “You’re the One That I Want.” Grease 2 reversing the roles of the male and female leads seems lazy at a distance, but it dramatically changes the dynamic of the film, transforming it into a story about female desire.
Considering that Grease 2 has a female director—Patricia Birch, choreographer of the original Grease—this hardly seems incidental. When Stephanie straddles a ladder and sings that “no ordinary boy is gonna do/I want a rider that’s cool,” it plays like a teen girl call to arms. Why should she settle for a mediocre fuckboy like Johnny? Compared to John Travolta, Adrian Zmed’s Johnny looks like a kid in his big brother’s jacket—as it should be. The T-Birds’ brand of preening, souped-up masculinity comes from a place of insecurity, which Birch understands totally. (Just look for the scene where the T-Birds scramble to put on their leather jackets over their dorky gym uniforms when a rival gang drives by the school.) Grease 2 also refuses to pit the Pink Ladies against each other; it would be easy to paint Paulette (Lorna Luft), a bubble-haired blonde in the Marilyn Monroe mold, as a dumb bunny or bitch as she sets her eyes on Johnny, but there’s no real rivalry there. Paulette even puts Johnny in his place when he slut-shames her, snapping, “I may not be the classiest chick in this school, but I’m the best you’re ever going to get, so take it or leave it!”
Grease 2 is big and broad and horny in a strangely innocent way. (I feel there was some subtext to the bowling anthem “Score Tonight,” but whatever could it be?) The film’s songs may not have caught on the public’s consciousness the way Grease’s did, but some are relentlessly catchy, perhaps none more so than the Biology 101 banger “Reproduction,” wherein students sing “Put your pollen tube to work!” next to an increasingly flustered Tab Hunter. (Along with Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft, Tab Hunter’s presence gives a slight queer edge to what is otherwise a campy but very heterosexual film.) And hey, it’s probably better sex-ed than a lot of students get now. This is a movie of big, big passions, but despite all the tough talk about “Prowlin’” from the T-Birds, it’s the women who take charge and set the limits. In the big closing number, one of the movie’s most hapless mooks asks, “Will I ever score?” but his girlfriend answers, “There’s nothing wrong with just liking each other.”
As Michael, Maxwell Caulfield is perfectly cast as the ideal teenybopper dreamboat—sensitive and smart, he draws hearts in his school notebook but also develops a Tuxedo Mask-like secret identity to fight the greasers terrorizing bowling alleys. And yet a clandestine motorcycle ride with a mystery man isn’t even the most romantic scene in the movie—while tutoring Stephanie at a greasy spoon diner, Michael makes “I think you’re kind of terrific” sound like the most passionate declaration of love. (See you in hell, “You complete me”!) It’s the kind of clumsy, soul-baring honesty only first love can convey.
Michael also becomes a literal fantasy object, as Stephanie sings “Love Will Turn Back the Hands of Time” and has a vision of her slain lover as a silver-encrusted, heaven-sent, leather boy telling her to keep their love alive. Except—Michael isn’t dead, and that duet only happened in Stephanie’s head. (Grease 2 goes above and beyond, ya’ll.) It’s a surreal and ridiculous scene, but it was also absolutely perfect for the 14-year-old girl watching Grease 2 on VH1 with starry eyes. I never wanted to be a Sandy or Rizzo, not with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Stephanie right there with her Cool Rider in tow. When it comes to the Grease movies and Rydell High, freshman year has nothing on being a sophomore.