An element of pop culture can mark a paradigm shift, even if he has no idea. (Lack of calculation is part of the reason the paradigm shifts.) That’s what happened in the summer of 1978, when the movie version of “Grease” was released. It reigned the same way “Saturday Night Fever” had six months before, with John Travolta’s electric presence fueling both films. But “Saturday Night Fever” was a fiery, galvanizing film in a way no one could miss. It was like Scorsese disco, with an unruly street vibe, some of the greatest songs – and dances – to ever appear in a Hollywood movie, and a performance by Travolta that was so extraordinary in its authenticity that it almost jumped out of the screen. It was close to a great movie, and no one has the idea of a guilty pleasure.
“Grease,” on the other hand, came to you like a happy pack of retro chewing gum, a sugary smell of healthy good vibes. Most of the tributes written in the past week to Olivia Newton-John expressed the overwhelming affection people still feel for “Grease,” and how central a film it was to them. I share the love, though what’s harder to communicate, unless you were there at the time, is how incongruous “Grease” was for the era. It was a perfectly clean neo-50s musical that landed, like a space shuttle from the planet Brylcreem, in the middle of the fragmented and gritty late 70s. Unlike “Saturday Night Fever” (or “American Graffiti”), it seemed to have nothing to do with what was “going on”. But that’s why it changed what was happening. Much like “Rocky,” “Grease” — without trying — glimpsed the future in the past. It brought us back, in a knowingly cheeky way, to a stylized ideal of wholesomeness that the whole culture had lost. (That’s why the movie was perched on the edge of kitsch.) And we’ve tried, in different ways, to get back to it ever since.
“13: The Musical” is a Netflix children’s musical based on “13,” a show that opened on Broadway in 2008 and played just 105 performances. But it has been revived several times, and this New York production launched Ariana Grande’s career. It’s the only musical in Broadway history to have an all-teenage cast and band, and the film version, directed by Tamra Davis, only elevates that spirit. “13: The Musical” has a flawless innocence bounce that seems designed to appeal to anyone who loved the early “High School Musical” movies, but finds “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” with its knockoffs artistic. -The story of a soap opera to life mimics the art starring Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett, a little too dark and heavy.
Watching “13,” you see how a certain school of upbeat Broadway exuberance zigzagged and zagged, from the pastel explosion of “Grease” to the pop-musical elation of “Rent” to the movies “High School Musical” and other Disney Channel songs—and—dance candies like “Zombies” throughout this powdered-sugar saga of college angst. Is the movie an “after school special” about happy pills? Absolutely. About a 12-year-old Jewish child named Evan (Eli Golden) who, following his parents’ divorce, moves with his mother (Debra Messing) from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the small town of Walkerton, Indiana ( pop. 2,246), so they can live with his grandmother, played by Rhea Perlman as the only person in town who knows the word tuches? You bet your yarmulke.
Most of “13” takes place at William Henry Harrison Junior High, which, like the Disney Channel’s teenage demimonde, is a version of a racially balanced, beaver-hungry, of the 50s that meets today through the looking glass. in which the girls are always cheerleaders, the boys are soccer players, and there’s exactly one slightly alienated stranger – in this case, a perky girl in dark pigtails named Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), who in the One of the first numbers in the film sings that Walkerton is “The seediest place in the world”. The movie might not mean it, but she really does, and we can’t help but notice what a lovely song it is.
“13: The Musical” is as synthetic as it gets, but every five minutes or so there’s another number, and too bad if they don’t skip. The songs, by Jason Robert Brown, have an irresistible “Rent” Jr. effervescence, with a hip-hop flow to many of them, and they get you going. These children can sing and really dance, even as they enact a storyline built around a bar mitzvah, a first kiss, and the scheme that threatens to undermine the two.
As Evan, Eli Golden is one of those actors with an easy-to-listen “ethnic” face. He looks like he’s starring in tweens from “The Steve Guttenberg Story,” and he has a winning sincerity and a great voice. Evan, still reeling from his parents’ separation (he still hasn’t spoken to his father, who has left for another wife), practices for his bar mitzvah, but his heart is mostly in the afterparty. As a newcomer to town, he desperately wants everyone to come, which is why he agrees to be part of a scheme set up by popular Lucy (Frankie McNellis), the film’s token bad girl, to stop her friend Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell) from kissing Brett (JD McCrary), the dreamboat football star they both love, in a Friday night horror movie. Evan complies with his plan, which of course blows up in his face.
There are lessons learned by just about everyone. But as long as you watch songs like the tantalizing opener, “13/Becoming a Man,” or “Opportunity” or “Bad News,” which conjures up Supertramp’s doo-wop rapture “My Kind of Lady,” 13: The Musical” is just catchy enough to make you forget how easy it is. It’s not grease lighting, but it glides all the way through.