I recently watched John Landis’ 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000, a film that capably justifies itself despite being an ill-considered sequel. Unnecessary sequels are released all of the time; indeed, there is a firm argument that all sequels are unnecessary. Sometimes entertaining, occasionally better than the original, the sequel rarely exists for any other reason than to make its producers money.
One of the most notorious unwanted sequels is Grease 2, a 1982 follow-up to Randal Kleiser’s hugely popular 1978 musical film. While the original film grossed US$366 million worldwide, Patricia Birch’s follow-up limped out of cinemas with US$15 million to its name. Nowadays it is celebrated by a bespoke minority as a cult classic, remembered as Michelle Pfeiffer’s first big break, or entirely forgotten and ignored. I have enormous respect for cult audiences, and it is great to see a small group of enthusiasts find something worthy in discarded pop culture, but in this case the masses seem onto the better option. Grease 2 is a near-unmitigated failure: commercially, creatively, basically entirely.
In 1961, English immigrant Michael Carrington (Maxwell Caulfield) – the cousin of Grease‘s Sandy Olssen – arrives for the new school year at Rydell High. He is immediately drawn to Pink Lady Stephanie Zinone (Pfeiffer), but by tradition she can only date one of the T-Bird gang – and they resent Michael’s clean-cut, goody-two-shoes image.
As a general ground rule, if the original cast of a film are not available for the sequel, nobody should make the sequel. Blues Brothers 2000 manages to squeeze past this rule because it only lacks the late John Belushi and Cab Calloway, but honestly American cinema is littered with ill-advised re-casts and workarounds. Grease 2 attempts to make do with Didi Conn as original Pink Lady Frency, and an assortment of returning teachers and minor characters, and it simply is not nearly enough. There is a John Travolta-sized hole at the centre of Grease 2, and no actor in the cast manages to fill it due to a poor screenplay and a lot of underwhelming performances. The film almost entirely lacks chemistry, and without any means to care about the characters there are no means by which the audience can engage with the story.
One critical mistake the film makes is failing to make many characters likeable. In the original film the T-Birds were cool and funny, whereas here they are resentful and jealous, childish, and in one key sequence actively murderous. The Pink Ladies fare a little better, but they are still a long way below Olivia Newton-John, Stockard Channing, and the rest of the gang.
Michelle Pfeiffer has an immediate screen presence, but lacks solid material. Maxwell Caulfield gives a weak performance as a generally weak character, and almost entirely lacks chemistry with his co-lead. The only real highlight among the key cast is Lorna Luft as Paulette Rebchuck, who manages to own her narrative and feel genuinely funny at the same time. Of course Luft had prior form; she came to the film hot off playing Sandy in a 1980 stage production of Grease, and had been performing musically since childhood.
Of course more than anything a musical rises or falls on the basis of its songs. Here Grease 2 deeply flounders, without anything memorable or effective. In a few cases, such as the song “Reproduction”, the musical numbers feel actively risible. If you cannot exit a theatre humming at least one of the songs in a musical, that musical is inevitably doomed to failure.
Paramount Pictures genuinely had eyes on an entire franchise of Grease pictures. They must have been pretty disappointed.