June 14, 2012 at 9:25 AM ET
You can make a case for "Jaws," "A Summer Place," or any number of surfing or camp movies, but to me, "Grease" is the ultimate summer film. Not every scene takes place during summer, but the 1978 musical, which hit theaters 34 years ago this week, rings with the sounds and joys of the season.
One of the most memorable songs in the movie is that rollicking duet "Summer Nights," where Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta unreel the tale of their Aussie-American sun-drenched romance to two enthralled groups of friends with very different agendas.
"Tell me more, tell me more," beckon Travolta's T-Birds. "Didja get very far?"
"Tell me more, tell me more," coo Newton-John's Pink Ladies. "Like, does he have a car?"
And the rest of the movie is all a quest to recover those wonderful summer feelings, through the school year's ups and downs of slumber parties and pregnancy scares, drive-in movies and racing for pinks.
Pretty much every song in the movie is a gem, and the songs aren't hogged by the two stars, either.
After "Summer Nights," there's Rizzo's sarcastic "Look at Me I'm Sandra Dee," which taught a whole generation who Sandra Dee, Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue were, and her mournful follow-up, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." Teen idol Frankie Avalon (another new face to kids who saw "Grease" first as grade-schoolers) swoops in as the Teen Angel to warn Frenchy of the dangers of being a "Beauty School Dropout." ("Missed your midterms and flunked shampoo!")
Other hits include the lively "Born to Hand Jive," sweet and sad "Hopelessly Devoted to You," rocking "You're the One That I Want," and of course, "We Go Together," with its delightfully crazy nonsense language ("shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom, chang chang changitty chang sha-bop, that's the way it should beeeee...")
It's hard not to be happy when watching "Grease." Sure, it's a sanitized version of its era, filmed in the 1970s when '50s nostalgia ("Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," Sha Na Na) was in vogue. But as a movie, it hits all the right notes. It reminds you of who you loved in high school, and how hard you loved them, and how much warmer and livelier and fuller the summers seemed back then. They were too short then, and they're too short now.
'Grease' trivia, via IMDb:
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is msnbc.com's movies editor and the author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s."
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