The CultureMap Interview
Karaoke cinema: Grease becomes an interactive experience at WorldFest
Thirty-three years after it first splashed onto screens everywhere, Grease still is the word. The big difference now is, the people on screen aren’t the only ones who are hitting all the right notes.
A special Sing-A-Long version of the enduringly popular 1978 movie musical — prepared with the active involvement of Randal Kleiser, the film’s director — has been playing to packed houses in several United States cities throughout the past year. Lyrics to all the songs in the familiar soundtrack are flashed as subtitles on screen, allowing long-time fans and the newly initiated to, well, sing along with John Travolta, Oivia Newton-John and other members of the cast.
Call it le cinema du karaoke, and you won’t be far off the mark.
Kleiser himself will be on hand to see and hear how H-Town movie fans fare as song stylists when Grease Sing-A-Long screens Saturday afternoon at the AMC Studio 30 as part of the 2011 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival.
Earlier in the day, Kleiser — whose other directorial credits include The Blue Lagoon (1980), Summer Lovers (1982), Flight of the Navigator (1986), and Getting It Right (1989) — will conduct a WorldFest-sponsored master class for directors and actors at the Houston Marriott Westchase. It’s partly his way of repaying an old debt: Back in 1972, when WorldFest was located in Atlanta, Kleiser — then fresh out of UCLA film school — received a festival prize for Peege, a short he had directed as his master’s thesis project.
But wait, there’s more: During the festival, Kleiser landed a distributor for Peege. (The film, a sensitive drama about a young man’s last visit to his aunt in a nursing home, went on to gross more than $1 million in various nontheatrical venues, and was selected in 2008 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.) Within two years, Kleiser was directing episodes of TV dramas and made-for-television movies. And in 1978, he was ready to make his first theatrical feature: Grease
Kleiser tells CultureMap more in an exclusive interview.
CultureMap: How unnerving is it to see that a movie you made 33 years ago isn’t only still popular — it actually has become an audience-participation event?
Randall Kleiser: I’ll tell you — one of the most exciting moments of my life was last summer at the Hollywood Bowl when we had 17,000 people show up in costume the first time they showed the Sing-A-Long version. And let me tell you — they all knew the lyrics. They didn’t need the subtitles. They were so into it. And there were costumes contests, and some members of the original movie cast appeared. It was just amazing. A phenomenon. And I’m just very happy to be part of it.
CM:But has Grease ever been a double-edged sword for you? I can remember Arthur Penn telling me years ago that, while he would always be proud of directing Bonnie and Clyde — well, he wanted to tell people, “Hey, look, you know I have directed other movies, too.”
RK: Yeah, I know what he meant. And, look, I know that Grease will probably be on my tombstone. But you know what? A lot of people don’t have anything to put on their tombstone. The fact that the movie is such a joyous celebration, and everybody likes it because of that — I don’t mind that at all. It does bring attention to me. And when it does, I can tell people that I’ve directed other movies.
CM:After all this time — and after seeing Grease so many times — are there things in it that maybe you weren’t so happy about back in 1978, but you’ve come to better appreciate now?
RK: Well, actually, I’m glad that I wasn’t an auteur at the time. Because there were things about it that I would have changed that would have made it worse. One of those things was the opening title song. I had gotten a guy to write a very ‘50s-sounding title song that was also called “Grease” — but was very much a rock ’n’ roll song. And we animated the title sequence to that song. The cuts hit on the beats and everything.
And when I finished the whole song and animated title sequence, [producer] Robert Stigwood came to me and said, “Hey, I want to have Barry Gibb [of The Bee Gees] write a song for the title sequence.” And I said, “Hey, it’s already done. Look at it. It works great.” But they brought me the Barry Gibb song anyway, for Fankie Valli to sing. And I said, “This is a disco song. Why are we putting this in here? It doesn’t even hit the beats.”
CM:Well, after all, Stigwood had just come off making Saturday Night Fever with a Bee Gees soundtrack. So maybe he thought a Barry Gibb title song might help make lightning strike twice?
RK: Sure. But like I told them: “Even the lyrics don’t match the movie.” So they told me: “Well, go talk to Barry Gibb.” So I went to the set of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which he was shooting with his brothers at the time. We walked behind one of the sets — and he was dressed like one of the Beatles in a Sgt. Pepper outfit — and I told him, “Gee, Barry, these lyrics don’t match our movie. You have a line in there: 'Life is a time of illusion, wrapped up in trouble and laced in confusion. What are we doing here?' Now, those lyrics are very serious. And they have nothing to do to with our bright, sunny musical. We don’t have any serious scenes in the movie. It’s all happy. Can you change the lyric?”
And he said to me, totally seriously, “Why don’t you shoot a serious scene?”
RK: He didn’t change the lyric, I was outvoted, and that was the song that was slapped on the movie. And it turned out that it was a big hit, and no one noticed that the lyrics were completely wrong for the tone of the movie.
So if I would have been an auteur, and I could have had my way – it probably would’ve not been as good a movie.
"Grease Sing-A-Long" will be shown at 3 pm Saturday at the AMC Studio 30. Randal Kleiser and WorldFest director J. Hunter Todd cordially invite fans to dress up as their favorite "Grease" characters for the occasion.