As John Waters pointed out a Baltimore Sun piece this weekend, “John Travolta can play a hit man, a mobster or a woman; not many people can say that.” Travolta’s versatility as an actor has proven one of his greatest strengths. Closely related to his comfort in diverse roles is the ease with which he jumps from genre to genre – heady drama with Malick, psychological thriller and horror with De Palma, comedy with Heckerling, high-octane action with Woo — inhabiting each to the fullest.
Unquestionably, his career is one very closely linked with song and dance. From the worldwide sensation of Saturday Night Fever (which we discussed here last week), the career-reinventing Pulp Fiction (which we screened in glorious 35mm two weeks back), and the joyous musical spin on Waters’ Hairspray, the name Travolta will always jolt iconic memories of soundtrack and movement perfectly merged. Only in a career as storied as Travolta’s, in fact, could two other musical smashes, Urban Cowboy and Grease, seem like hidden gems.
James Bridges’ Urban Cowboy, viewed some 30 years later, stands as one of those fascinating movies where the 1970s collide with the 1980s. The story of ‘Bud’ Davis (Travolta), who moves from a small Texan town to the outskirts of Houston to work for an oil refinery, the film finds its center in Bud’s tumultuous relationship with Sissy (Debra Winger). Some of the film’s most intriguing moments come early on as the characters are established. We’ve never seen Travolta like this before. Sure, he’s suave and youthful; but here his look is of a bearded, rugged country boy in full cowboy regalia, cutting a figure an alternative universe away from his Tony Manero three years earlier. The notes these early scenes strike, as well as many of the realistic blue-collar details set around the oil refinery, would seem as at-home in a 1970s drama like Five Easy Pieces as they would in a 1980s romantic drama. That it’s co-produced by one of the names most closely associated with 70s Hollywood, Robert Evans, also conjures certain rich associations.
In comparison to Saturday Night Fever and Grease, it’s easy to forget just how big a musical hit Urban Cowboy was in its own right. If Altman’s Nashville was a take on country music made largely by outsiders (and one that it took its titular city ages to warm up to), Urban Cowboy was a film made for real country fans—and one that created a new generation of fans, credited as it is with jumpstarting the pop-country craze of the 1980s. Set in a sprawling, real-life honkey-tonk bar co-owned by singer Mickey Gilley (who appears as himself), and featuring bona fide country stars such as Charlie Daniels and Bonnie Raitt, Urban Cowboy was the real deal for its time and place. It makes a fascinating time capsule today.
So what about Grease? It’s hard to think of a film more eminently watchable. Grease has stood the test of time as a pure pleasure machine, ranking alongside American Graffiti and Back to the Future as one of Hollywood’s most entertaining and lovingly crafted looks back at the 1950s. It’s also a deeply funny film, one that at times approaches the over-the-top dark comedy of Waters’ Cry-Baby, skewering its era’s postures and styles at the same time that it pays homage. Certainly, the film also takes full advantage of the 1970s’ ability to frankly discuss sexuality in a way a 1950s film, even in the coded language of the day, never could.
If you want to see Travolta’s skills in full display, look no further. His dance moves here, a brilliant amalgamation of pure early rock-and-roll styles with splashes of disco, speak to the form’s highest capabilities, feeling expertly choreographed yet free and liberated all at once. And it’s on Grease’s soundtrack where we hear Travolta at his very best. The hit “Summer Nights” remains winning and fresh, but the climactic performance of the worldwide smash “You’re The One That I Want” steals the show. I personally rewound this sequence three times, it retains so much giddy-making charm; I was then stunned to see it so quickly followed by “We Go Together,” a song that I vividly remember my sister and her friends singing time and time again when we were kids (yet had somehow forgotten that it originated here). Chances are you’ll also have a giddy and personal experience if you rewatch Grease, too: it’s that deeply embedded in the fabric of our culture.
As is Travolta. To name another actor easily identifiable with so many major moments of song and dance in film history, we’d have to go back to the classic era of, say, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. That in Travolta’s case these iconic musical films are just one aspect of an acting career spanning five decades is simply incredible.
– Eric Hatch, Programming Director