Thursday, June 17, 2010

The one that I wanted?

About the last thing I wanted to do yesterday was finish my day with a Grease sing-along.

To fully appreciate that, you'd have to get a sense for the 24 hours that led up to it.

At about 7:30 on the previous night, my Celtics were busy laying an egg in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. They scored only 31 points in the first half against the LA Lakers, and the second half wasn't much better: 36 points. That gave them the second-lowest total ever in an NBA Finals game, and gave the Lakers a huge amount of momentum going into Game 7. I endure an uneasy peace with Laker fans in this city, especially when the Celtics face the Lakers in the finals. It appeared the Laker fans I loathe -- I like them in other respects, but loathe them in terms of their Laker fandom -- were about to get bragging rights for the next year, and possibly, in humbling fashion. I was watching the game with a friend, and we were really hoping to be able to celebrate a Celtics championship together. Instead, he'll be on a plane to Amsterdam for Game 7, and I'll be watching through the gaps in my fingers as I cover my eyes. 89-67, Lakers, and it shouldn't have even been that close.

I'd had three beers over the course of the evening -- first trying to start the celebration early, then trying to drown my sorrows -- so getting to sleep wasn't difficult. But I awoke around 1:30, and that's when the trouble began. I couldn't get back to sleep for over an hour, and when I did, it was fitful at best. I was tormented by bad dreams that ranged from the highly logical (Game 7 was already over and my team had lost) to the highly symbolic (I was drowning in a space station that was filling up with water).

The good news was that I got to sleep in -- I didn't have to be at work until 9:30, as I was covering the late shift for a co-worker on vacation. The bad news about that: I'd have to soldier through until 6, rather than my usual 3:30, before I could relieve my exhaustion.

Of course, I also had to have the worst workday on record, just to spice things up.

VIPs needed their phones swapped to new units under tight deadlines. An agenda needed to be prepared for our weekly staff meeting. And three hours of the day were lost on a frustrating problem where our accounts receivable person couldn't scan checks into our Bank of America account, because the USB check scanner was no longer being recognized by her computer. Three different tech support people at Bank of America were spoken to, to no avail. I didn't eat lunch until after 2:30, and it was a puny bowl of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs from the break room.

Around lunchtime, I got an email from my editor at the website, who asked me if I wanted to go to a free screening of the re-release of Grease in sing-along format. In other words, the lyrics appeared on the screen in colorful design schemes, so you could karaoke along with Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, even if you didn't know the words.

Initially I thought the invite was for Thursday night, which would have been out of the question -- that's Game 7. But when I noticed it was Wednesday, my perspective changed slightly. I still didn't want to go -- no way did I want to go. But I also don't like to turn down work, as described here. So I checked with the wife and ultimately committed to the 7:30 show, even though I'd basically have to drive across town directly from work, and would not end this long and miserable day until after 10 p.m.

What's worse, I was not actually going to be writing a review of the film per se. I was going to be writing a color piece in which I described what it was like to attend a sing-along screening. This meant taking note of environmental details and being sure I came away with some tangible perspective on what to write about. And it meant bringing in a notebook for the first time since I first started reviewing films for a weekly paper in Rhode Island back in the late 1990s, when I didn't trust myself to remember the details I wanted to write about. Taking notes makes it one step harder than the reviews I write now, where I basically just immerse myself in a passive watching experience, since I'm usually writing only 300 words on the movie and don't have to discuss particulars.

By the time 6 o'clock mercifully rolled around, I questioned my own sanity in accepting this assignment.

But an hour and fifteen minutes later (with a brief stop for dinner), I found myself walking into the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, just late enough so that I couldn't take advantage of the free drinks being offered prior to the show. I don't know that they would have helped me or put me to sleep, but either way, I missed them.

I soon figured out why the free drinks were being offered. Video cameras flanked either side of the front of the theater, as well as one along the back. As it turned out, this was the first screening of Grease sing-along to any audience, anywhere, and they wanted to tape the audience dancing, to show on TV in the accompanying ad campaign. In fact, a guy from Paramount explained at the beginning that they would be turning on the lights for "Greased Lightning," and wanted us to all get up and mimic the actors' dance moves. (This also explained all the signs outside, warning us that by attending we were giving Paramount the right to use our likeness in whatever way they saw fit.) So naturally, they figured they'd get better dance moves and more reckless enthusiasm from the audience if they plied us with free alcohol. Fortunately, my relatively late arrival got me a seat in the back row, meaning I could sit that number out without feeling like I was ruining the shot.

Needless to say, I wasn't in the mood for either singing or dancing. I'd only seen Grease once, years ago. So with a few exceptions, these are not songs I could easily sing along with anyway. But I was holding out a distant hope that a cheery musical and a lively crowd would lift some of the weight from my shoulders.

One special treat, of sorts: Randal Kleiser, the director of the movie, was in attendance, and spoke to the crowd beforehand. Then we got going.

As it turned out, I'd forgotten more about Grease than I'd remembered. The only time I ever saw it was probably in the early 1980s, and what I remember about it now was feeling sad that Sandy and Danny could never get it together. This was a very enduring memory: I very much wanted Sandy and Danny to be together, but they had to spend the whole movie apart. I must have been really wooed by the film's first 2-3 minutes, when Sandy and Danny have a carefree romance on the beach. In fact, that may have been one of my first cinematic experiences of romantic love. And so I must have been really frustrated when Danny is then mean to Sandy, and Sandy is then aloof to Danny, and Danny is then mean to Sandy again. Watching Grease again now, I realize there are much larger portions of the movie where they're together than I had thought all these years. But since none of those scenes rivaled the beach scenes -- until the very end, that is -- I had this idea that the whole movie was very bittersweet, until they finally get to fly off into the sunset in Danny's convertible.

A couple other thoughts about Grease, that everyone else probably had decades ago:

1) This movie has a really weak narrative structure. Major plot points are resolved with throwaway lines of dialogue ("False alarm! I'm not pregnant!"), and the film's middle is very flabby, with the whole National Bandstand dance scene and a song I could swear never existed called "Hand Jive." I guess it just doesn't really have much of an act structure. The only real conflict that needs to be resolved between Danny and Sandy is that she needs to start seeming less prudish ... and when she does this, they live happily ever after? What kind of crazy-ass message is that?

2) Is Betty Rizzo any relation to Ratso Rizzo?

3) I had forgotten that Olivia Newton John (or Livy, as my wife and her fellow countrymen/women call her) plays an actual Australian in the film. Is that how the play was originally written, or was it tailored to Newton John? And was that because she couldn't suppress her Aussie accent?

4) I had forgotten how many songs I actually know from Grease.

5) I was surprised to see certain actors I forgot were in the movie, like Sid Caesar, Alice Ghostly, Dody Goodman (who I had known primarily as the secretary struck by lightning in Splash) and Eddie Deezen (who I had known primarily as the nerdy computer hacker in WarGames).

So what did it do for my mood overall?

Well, I can tell you that I was standing by the end. This may have been more out of necessity -- I wanted to see Livy and Johnny dance to "You're the One That I Want," which is the movie's best song, and I couldn't with the people standing in front of me. But I shouldn't have had the energy to be on my feet at all at this point, and I clearly did. I also decided to ditch the Scrooge act and sing along on the aforementioned song. I didn't let myself go or anything, but there was sound coming out of my mouth for sure. And oh yeah, the vibrant lyrics and other little graphics were pretty fun.

On the way to the parking lot, I noticed a spring in my step. It could have just been my desire to get to my car and end this challenging 24 hours, but I'm happy to attribute it to the movie. It's a better story that way.

The sing-along Grease -- which hits theaters July 8th -- isn't necessarily the one that I wanted, at the start of the day. But maybe it was the one that I needed.

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