Sunday, April 13, 2014



Following our Italian adventures, the European location unit for Goodfollies had one final stop before returning home to the United States and studio work. We all headed off to Barcelona for a few days. Here, we shot the most elaborate of the musical numbers for this epic tale of lady mobsters in New Jersey, a complex aerial ballet using silks, trampolines and the flying trapeze, performed amongst the spires of Gaudi's masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia. The producers chose this location as the organic forms of Gaudi's architecture, with their dream like quality (even in their unfinished state) most perfectly reflect Toni Soprano's disordered mind as she's guided back to sanity by her psychiatrist, Dr. Duchess Malfi. 

I was a little uncertain about the trapeze work the scene required given my recent accident and had my stand-in do all of the tricks first to make sure that there would be no problems when it came time to film. I must admit, the results will be spectacular. For the finale, I'm launched high in the air above the Nativity facade, while extras, dressed symbolically as the seven deadly sins, rappel down the outside on sheets of day-glo ripstop nylon. With all the fog machines going spewing out purple haze, it's a feast of visual delights. I smell Oscar nominations for design and cinematography at the very least. 

Barcelona was truly a lovely city, very similar to Paris but without the attitude and with the benefits of a sea coast. I almost hated to retire to my hotel in the evenings but I had to keep up my strength. When choosing a film, I needed to find something relaxing and inoffensive and with a strong use of color so I settled on the recent DVD release of the 1978 film adaptation of Grease with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. 

In Grease, we follow the adventures of the senior class of fictional Rydell High School over the course of their last school year. Danny Zuko (Travolta), has met cute Australian transfer student Sandy Olsen (Newton-John). However, her clean teen image doesn't fit with his role as leader of the greaser clan, the T-Birds. Their on again, off again romance forms the spine of the film and they eventually find true happiness at the end when Sandy changes her image to match his. (What sort of a life lesson this teaches to small girls who view the film is open to debate.) In subplots, the leader of the bad girl Pink Ladies (Stockard Channing) gets involved with Kenickie (Jeff Conaway), Danny's best friend; Frenchy (Didi Conn) flunks out of beauty school; and a number of fifties TV and film stars show up in cameos as the teachers and other adults (including Eve Arden as the principal, Dody Goodman as her secretary, Sid Caesar as the coach, Edd Byrnes as a DJ, Joan Blondell as a waitress and Frankie Avalon as a celestial body.) 

Grease was based on a Broadway musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey which had opened on Broadway in 1972 with the young Barry Bostwick in the lead. (Travolta played Doody in the Broadway Company later in the run prior to his landing Welcome Back Kotter). The stage show was an ensemble piece, with no real plot, which affectionately spoofed the tough kids of urban schools in the fifties and the styles of music popular at the time. The show, which overcame lukewarm reviews, ran for years based on its ensemble structure, which negated the need for star salaries, and caught a wave of fifties nostalgia which swept the nation in the seventies. Rights were obtained by the flamboyant producer Allan Carr, who teamed up with Robert Stigwood to create a musical that would appeal to the late seventies teen. 

The ensemble/plotless structure was discarded (along with a good portion of the score) and Carr, working with Bronte Woodard, created a star scenario focusing on the Danny/Sandy romance. Travolta, with his Broadway background, was a natural. Newton-John, an established pop star with no major film experience, was an unusual choice but the role requires little of her but to be herself and to try and pretend that she's not a thirty something in high school. To bolster her part, they brought in her usual songwriter/producer John Farrar to write a couple of numbers which would make full use of her sound (Hopelessly Devoted to You and You're the One that I Want) despite their being pure 70s pop and completely at odds with the rest of the score. 

Direction tasks fell to Randal Kleiser, a novice with some TV experience and the cast was rounded out with young Hollywood talent, many of whom went on to complete obscurity. The whole thing should have been a recipe for disaster on the scale of Can't Stop the Music but, for unfathomable reasons, the ingredients gelled into an entertaining and highly enjoyable confection. Enough of the original score remained, especially Summer Nights to give it a fifties flavor. The art department created boat loads of never-never land fifties costumes and sets in wild colors and the cast are all obviously having the time of their lives. Patricia Birch, the choreographer, also had fun staging numbers in everything from an athletic stadium to a carnival funhouse. 

Performance honors go to Stockard Channing as Rizzo. When she's on screen, she blows everyone else away and her big number late in the film There Are Worse Things I Could Do is a little gem of screen performance. No one will ever buy her as seventeen but you end up not caring. Travolta is fine as Danny, although he's a little too arch and mannered at times. Newton-John is decorative and doesn't bump into the furniture. 

The new DVD has the film in widescreen with an excellent soundtrack. For a highly touted rerelease, there's a dearth of extras. There's a twenty minute documentary made in '98 for the film's twentieth anniversary with the requisite talking heads. That's about it. 

Crushed sand castle. Irritating cheer leader. Uncredited Michael Biehn. Gratuitous poodle skirts. Blond wigs. Italian Swiss Colony wine. Gratuitous saran wrap dancing. Gratuitous Fannie Flagg. Drive-In gossip. Tilt-a-whirl riding. Gym dancing.

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