A piece of pop culture can mark a paradigm shift, even when it has no idea it’s doing so. (The lack of calculation is part of why the paradigm shifts.) That’s what happened in the summer of 1978, when the movie version of “Grease” came out. It ruled the way that “Saturday Night Fever” had just six months before, with the electric presence of John Travolta fueling both films. But “Saturday Night Fever” was a fiery and galvanic movie in a way that no one could miss. It was like disco Scorsese, with an unruly street vibe, some of the greatest songs — and dancing — ever to appear in a Hollywood film, and a performance by Travolta that was so extraordinary in its authenticity that it just about jumped off the screen. It was close to a great movie, and no one’s idea of a guilty pleasure.
“Grease,” on the other hand, came at you like a happy package of retro bubblegum, a sugar smack of wholesome good vibes. Most of the tributes written last 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 around back then, is what an incongruous fit “Grease” was for the time. It was a squeaky-clean neo-’50s musical that landed, like a space shuttle from the planet Brylcreem, in the middle of the gritty fragmented late ’70s. Unlike “Saturday Night Fever” (or “American Graffiti”), it seemed to have nothing at all to do with what was “going on.” But that’s why it changed what was going on. Just like “Rocky,” “Grease” — without trying to — glimpsed the future in the past. It took us back, in a knowingly cheeky way, to an ideal of stylized wholesomeness that the entire culture had lost. (That’s why the film was perched on the edge of kitsch.) And we’ve been trying, in different ways, to get back there ever since.
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“13: The Musical” is a Netflix musical for kids that’s based on “13,” a show that opened on Broadway in 2008 and played for just 105 performances. But it’s been revived a number of times, and that New York production launched the career of Ariana Grande. It’s the only musical in Broadway history that had a cast and band composed entirely of teenagers, and the movie version, directed by Tamra Davis, just ups the ante on that spirit. “13: The Musical” has a squeaky-clean bounce of innocence that seems designed to appeal to anyone who loved the early “High School Musical” films but finds “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” with its art-imitates-life-imitates-art soap-opera storyline featuring Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett, to be a little too dark and heavy.
Watching “13,” you see how a certain school of upbeat Broadway exuberance zigged and zagged, from the pastel explosion of “Grease” to the pop-musical exhilaration of “Rent” to the “High School Musical” films and other Disney Channel song-and-dance confections like “Zombies” right up through this powdered-sugar saga of middle-school angst. Is the movie an “Afterschool Special” on happy pills? Absolutely. About a 12-year-old Jewish kid 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 that 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 teen demimonde of the Disney Channel is a racially balanced, eager-beaver, ’50s-meets-today-through-the-looking-glass version of a world in which the girls are still cheerleaders, the boys are football jocks, and there’s exactly one slightly alienated outsider — in this case, a perky girl in glum pigtails named Patrice (Gabriella Uhl), who in one of the film’s early numbers sings that Walkerton is “The Lamest Place in the World.” The movie may not think so, but she means it, and we can’t help but notice what a pretty song it is.
. The songs, by Jason Robert Brown, have an irresistible “Rent” Jr. effervescence, with a hip-hop flow to several of them, and they reel you in. These kids can sing and really dance, even as they’re enacting a storyline built around a bar mitzvah, a first kiss, and the scheme that threatens to undermine both.
As Evan, Eli Golden is one of those actors with an easy-listening “ethnic” face. He looks like he’s starring in the tween sections of “The Steve Guttenberg Story,” and he’s got a winning sincerity, and a nice voice. Evan, still reeling from his parents’ split (he still isn’t speaking to his father, who left for another woman), is practicing for his bar mitzvah, but his heart is mostly in the afterparty. As the new kid in town, he’s desperate for everyone to come, which is why he agrees to be part of a scheme set up by the popular Lucy (Frankie McNellis), the film’s token mean girl, to stop her friend Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell) from kissing Brett (JD McCrary), the dreamboat football star they both like, at a Friday-night horror movie. Evan complies with her plan, which of course blows up in his face.
There are lessons learned by just about everyone. But as long as you’re watching songs like the enticing opening number, “13/Becoming a Man,” or the cheerleader-chant-driven “Opportunity,” or “Bad News,” which evokes the doo-wop rapture of Supertramp’s “My Kind of Lady,” “13: The Musical” is just catchy enough to make you forget how facile it is. It’s not greased lighting, but it glides right along.
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