Don’t sic Rizzo and Kenickie on me for saying this, but Grease (Paramount) was — and still is — a clunker.

Cute story? Sure, in the way of leather-jacketed, hairsprayed, swivel-hipped, doo-wop nostalgia. Released in 1978, the same year as The Deer Hunter (to put retro in perspective), director Randal Kleiser’s movie, based on the Broadway musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, celebrates the innocence of the 1950s, when good girls and bad girls could recognize each other (and the boys who barked at them) on sight. Twenty years ago, in the disco-inferno ’70s, that sexual simplicity was a novelty. Twenty years later, it’s the quaintly feverish, Boogie Nights-style ’70s that tickles, and we look to Grease not for its kinship to Happy Days but for its kinship to Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta.

And those are the two magic words. Grease is a crummy, crudely put together movie — Kleiser’s camera doesn’t swing, the action doesn’t flow, the big set pieces (the girls with ”Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” the boys with ”Greased Lightnin’,” the National Bandstand Dance, the Thunder Road race) look like they were shot on a high school stage. But my oh my, will you get a load of slinky, skinny sex pistol John Travolta, less than a year out of Fever, burning with ambition and possibility (seconds before taking a wrong turn with Moment by Moment). That Travolta reigns again this very moment — paunched and middle-aged in Primary Colors — only intensifies the pleasures of this earlier performance. He is greased lightning.

Too, the sight of Australian lollipop Olivia Newton-John at the peak of her recording popularity, all bony and pert, is still sweet. (Even transformed, in the image-makeover climax, into a spandex-wearing babe, she’s as shiny as a Breck girl.) And live wire Stockard Channing — currently playing a middle-aged cop in Twilight — knows exactly what she’s doing as leader of the Pink Ladies. Looking fabulously stylish in nonconformist ways her girlfriends would never understand, her Rizzo is decades ahead of her time as the kind of sexually assertive and honest chick that women’s magazines would eventually celebrate as Fully Integrated Personalities.

Grease, with its catchy-but-mediocre music and busy-but-uninspired dancing, is cheesy and faded — and still we smile with indulgence. (Plus, may I just say, modern eyes may appreciate the movie’s intense boy-boy communion with new amusement: Those T-Birds may have sworn they were looking for girls who ”put out,” but they only have eyes for each other.) Grease is a creaker, but it’s America’s creaker. Welcome back, Zuko. C

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