I’m going to come clean right here: I like the Reddit theory that Sandy is dead. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you haven’t read all of the internet yet. But don’t worry. You’ll get there.
Before long, someone on one of your social media feeds will share the theory that in the film adaptation of Grease, the entire story is the death rattle hallucination of lead character Sandy, slowly dying after drowning. A couple moments in the film support the theory.
The first is a line from the song "Summer Nights." In it, Sandy’s summer fling Danny sings, “I saved her life — she nearly drowned.”
The theory purports that this is the moment when the story is actually occurring. That Sandy’s brain is reworking her memory to soothe her through the dying process. (Interestingly enough, scientific theory supports the idea that our brains create elaborate dreams as we are actively dying, to help the body and mind prepare for the inevitable.)
The second occurs at the very end of the film, as Danny and Sandy, driving off in Greased Lightning, Kenickie’s souped-up car, take off into the sky. It is this moment, the theory says, that Sandy dies and is flown to heaven by her would-be boyfriend.
All the exposition and plot development between those two points is fanciful dream stuff. That fancifulness allows for Sandy’s transformation, Rizzo’s pregnancy fears to turn out alright and Frenchy’s encounter with a heavenly Teen Angel. Angel? Hey, wait a minute...
At any rate, the theory, while clever, is wrong. Dead wrong (pardon the pun). Here’s why:
4. The Grease Creator Thinks The Theory Is Bat$%!# Crazy
Do a quick Google News search for “Grease creator theory” and, like greased lightning, a bunch of interviews with Jim Jacobs, Grease’s creator, appear. Jacobs debunks the theory as Reddit hokum and says whoever came up with the idea “must have been on acid.” Furthermore, he says, Sandy was alive the whole time.
All well and good, Mr. Jacobs, but that was in your version of Grease. The original, raunchier version is only the basis for the 1978 film. A fair amount changed between stage and screen.
For example, your version opened in the future, at a Rydell High Class of 1959 reunion. One in which Eugene, the valedictorian, gives a speech in part honoring those alumni who couldn’t be there — but are there in spirit.
The original theater production, then, is nothing more than a memory. Which means the story may be presented by an unreliable narrator.
Did things actually happen the way the class remembers? Were things that sweet? Was Sandy alive? Was Danny? Could this be nothing more than a fiction conjured up by Eugene when the Burger Palace Boys steal the show?
Also, Burger Palace Boys? The T-Birds is so much better, Mr. Jacobs.
3. Randal Kleiser Is Not That Creative
OK, I kid, really. I mean, you don’t have a long-lasting career as a Hollywood director without a few ounces of creativity.
What I really mean is, Kleiser, Grease’s film director, doesn’t sport an oeuvre that suggests such a dark twist. Kleiser’s biggest film outside Grease is The Blue Lagoon, though he did also direct Flight of the Navigator, Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, and Big Top Pee Wee.
If the director was M. Night Shyamalan or Tim Burton, then, OK, yeah, Sandy’s probably a ghost, a figment of Danny’s imagination or a reincarnated Johnny Depp. But this is Kleiser. So the chances Sandy is nothing more than a teen angel is pretty slim. Though, one of Kleiser’s college roommates was George Lucas, so who knows how Lucas’s vision rubbed off on the then young director. Maybe he always wanted to do something artsy like THX 1138.
2. Bronte Woodard Stuck To Real Life
Instead of Kleiser, Bronte Woodard, the writer who adapted Grease, is really the one we should put under the microscope. Or his work, anyway.
That list isn’t very long, mostly because Woodard died of liver disease before he turned 40 years old. What he did produce includes Can’t Stop the Music, a film loosely based on the Village People and the inspiration for the Golden Raspberry Awards. He also wrote a book, Meet Me at the Melba, a ‘30s-era romance about unions and diners.
So, not a lot of magical realism in Woodard’s work, which is enough to make a leap and say the author didn’t consider the more spiritual — or parapsychological — aspects of Jacobs’s play. Of which, there were no aspects, according to Jacobs (see above). Right?
1. All Producer Allan Carr Wanted Was A Hit
Lest we think differently, Grease producer Allan Carr wasn’t looking to make a subtle art film hidden inside a popcorn summer musical. No, Carr was looking for a hit. And he didn’t have a ton to work with. No time, no money and — for the era — no star power.
From the Vanity Fair article How Grease Beat the Odds and Became the Biggest Movie Musical of the 20th Century:
“The slapdash production, mapped out in five weeks and shot over two months, was given a modest $6 million budget by Paramount C.E.O. Barry Diller, who dismissed the whole thing as so much cinematic cotton candy. Its leading lady was foreign and untried, its cast was too old, its score uneven, its choreography and staging more often than not thought up on the fly. Its supporting cast was made up largely of a ragtag cluster of 1950s has-beens, and its second lead actor was a wild child who would later die of complications from drug abuse.”
Sounds like there was time to conceive a secret subplot in which the lead character was living a hallucination? What do you think this is, Jacob’s Ladder?
Though, Maybe Sandy Is Dead After All
Or has Grease always been Jim Jacobs’s ladder? Jacobs says Sandy isn’t dead. Kleiser hasn’t commented. And Woodard is no longer able to tell his side of the story. That leaves us to wonder: Did Woodard see something in Jacobs’s work that even Jacobs didn’t see? Such is the way of adaptation. (If you don’t believe me, read The Orchid Thief and then watch Adaptation.)
Can we assume that Woodard read Jacobs’s original play and saw something in Eugene’s line about former classmates attending the school reunion “in spirit”? Did he wonder if that mysterious line — “She nearly drowned” — carried more weight than one might expect? (After all, she nearly drowned.) Perhaps Kleiser and Woodard spent several late nights talking about ways they might subvert the genre. It was the 1970s. There was a lot of subversion going on.
Of course they wouldn’t tell anyone that Sandy’s line at a 1 minute, 45 seconds into the film — “Danny, is this the end?” — referred to her demise. They wouldn’t explain that the reason Frenchy meets Teen Angel is because Rydell High was really purgatory and Teen Angel was an angel. Or that when Greased Lightning flies off into the sky, it is carrying Sandy to the heavens above. Naw. They’d keep that to themselves. Their own little in-joke.
Not creative? Give me a break. Right, Mr. Kleiser? You’re not related to Damon Lindelof or Carlton Cuse are you?
If you need a little summer lovin' (and a reminder of this amazing musical) watch the scene below and tell us what you think about Sandy's death theory:
Is Sandy alive or dead?