Grease vs. Saturday Night Fever


Scene: A summer night, June 1978. In movie theaters across the country, the lights go down, the screen lights up. Waves crash on a beach, a blonde beauty and a raven-headed boy hold each other close, the music swells as they pledge their devotion and part ways, teenaged hearts aching.

It could only be one movie: Grease.

Since that screening, we've gleefully sung along with the students of Rydell High, the setting of the American cult classic starring Olivia Newton John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny.

Grease encompasses all things high school — cliques and cars, angst and academics, dating and dancing, hormones and heartaches — within a killer soundtrack. From the opening credits and Frankie Valli's title track "Grease," to "Summer Nights" to the exuberant finale "We Go Together," each song touches on something eveone can realte to. And that's what makes Grease a superior film to Saturday Night Fever.

Of course, SNF had the soundtrack that defined the '70s (but really, is that a good thing?) and some smokin' moves under a shimmering disco ball, but it's not something that means much to most of us. Grease is the consummate coming-of-age story, whether you came-to-age in the '50s or are in the process now. And the characters! Whose high school didn't have the discombobulated principal? The bombshell teacher? The jocks and geeks and bad boys and prom queens and cheerleaders and preps and thugs? The setting might have been the '50s, but those same students exist today, giving Grease the staying power of, well, grease on your favorite white T-shirt. How many characters can you rattle off from the movie? Off the top of my head, I've got Danny, Sandy, Rizzo, Kenickie, Frenchy, Principal McGee, and of course, the dancing queen herself, Cha Cha. How many songs can you sing along with? More than a few, I'm willing to bet.

Is Grease realistic? Yes and no — and that's the beauty of it. No, the school isn't going to perform a choreographed dance number to your summer memory, but you probably had a summer love of your own to apply. You can relate to wanting a cool car and a hot date to the prom. Heck, you might still relate to all these things (exchange prom for, say the Blues Ball and it all still works). And that, friends, is why Grease is the word.

— Mary Helen Randall

Saturday Night Fever

Not only is Saturday Night Fever the perfect time capsule for a period in American history that — love it or loathe it — can never be replicated, but it's a modern parable for the joy (and yes, heartache) of being very good at one thing. The best, even. Add a classic love triangle and the necessary generational division within a torn family and you have modern cinema that approaches Shakespearean gravity. And with the Bee Gees on the soundtrack.

There was a John Travolta before SNF, but there has never been a Travolta like his Tony Manero (Vincent Vega was close, but not quite). On the fast track to managing a hardware store for a living, Tony is to a dance floor as Rockefeller was to a board room. Disco is Tony's salvation and he, in the eyes of starstruck Annette (Donna Pescow) and his gang of cronies — The Faces — is a savior himself. The only glimpse of adulthood creeping into Tony's life is his attraction to Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a properly trained dancer with — in her eyes — more class than Tony can handle. (Sound familiar, Grease fans?)

The lasting beauty of SNF is that any imitation today comes across as satire. (Imagine attempting a remake of a film that so perfectly captured the taste of America in 1977.) Posters of Bruce Lee, Rocky Balboa, and Farrah in Tony's bedroom. That iconic white suit Tony wears for the semi-climactic dance contest. And, of course, the music.

A century from now, pop-culture historians will wonder which came first: Saturday Night Fever or the Bee Gees. Sadly, "Stayin' Alive" has become at once an anthem for the disco craze and a cliché for the very same. But try listening to "You Should be Dancing," "Boogie Shoes" (by KC & the Sunshine Band), or "Disco Inferno" (by the Trammps) without shaking parts you don't normally shake. Disco had to die, but this soundtrack is immortal.

My favorite scene of the film actually takes place at the Manero dinner table. When Tony has the temerity to take a second pork chop, his father slaps him in the back of the head. "You know," pleads an exasperated Tony, "I work on my hair a long time, and you hit it. He hits my hair." More than 30 years after it captured a generation, there's no hitting Saturday Night Fever.

— Frank Murtaugh

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