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DANCE FEVER

The year was 1978, and I was finally convinced there was life after the Captain and Tennille and Barry Manilow. The reason was "Grease."

The afternoon I bought the soundtrack I raced to my best friend's house, where we re-enacted "Summer Nights," imagined we were as pretty as Olivia Newton-John and committed every "shoo-bop" to memory.

The ritual repeated itself dozens of time that year, and the next. Without VCRs to rely on, we felt a similar compulsion with the movie, going back to the big screen as if we might never be able to catch it on the small.

I can't remember how many times I saw it. The number is recorded in a pink gingham diary that has since been sucked into a vortex of nostalgia with my crusty Lip Smackers, back issues of Tiger Beat and that scratchy "Grease" album.

Can we ever go back to Rydell High?

Twenty years later, marketers are hoping that Friday's re-release of "Grease," the most popular movie musical of all time, drums up business from boomers, Xers and frustrated be-boppers.

At its worst, the movie's chocolate malt froth might play for some, in the second go-'round, like a hellish high school reunion. Nothing is as you remember it. The jock you swooned over has blimped out, the prom queen's in detox, and the president of the debate club is making the most of his oratorical skills in divorce court.

After all, it's impossible to watch a movie about the '50s in the '90s -- as an adult -- the way you did as a kid in the '70s. Pre-millennial sensibilities creep in. The tunes dim, the dancing fades, and what remains is a gang of horny teens who practice unsafe sex, drive recklessly and flunk phys ed. When the heroine abandons Peter Pan collars and cheerleading pleats for off-the-shoulder black and Lycra that leaves little to the imagination, she's sending an unhealthy message to girls about what it takes to get a man.

But "Grease" is as much about messages as it is about grease. The fantasy of music and dancing is what resonates, not the ethos of the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds. It sings of friendship, summer love and the mechanic's joy of turning a jalopy into "Greased Lightning."

And for that, it's electrifying.

From the moment Danny Zuko first takes a drag from his cigarette to the scene where he and Sandy drive into the clouds, "Grease" proves why John Travolta, despite the lamentable turns he took in the '80s, was meant for stardom. These days he's dividing his talk show time between the giddiness of his first film and the politics of "Primary Colors." In some respects, the new role shares much in common with the one that made him a Seventeen magazine heartthrob two decades ago: In both he plays a leader with women troubles.

But while the political coincidence of Bill Clinton's alleged philandering will certainly boost "Primary Colors' " rankings at
the box office, "Grease" has sentimentality on its side. And history has shown us what a potent pull that can be. Still, it would be shocking if the movie raked in half as much as another re-release from that era, "Star Wars." Though just about everyone has seen both films, the re-released "Star Wars" has special-effects wizardry best seen on a large screen, as well as a few extra moments with Jabba the Hut.

"Grease" doesn't have a director's cut. There are no lost-then-found scenes. We're not treated to additional footage of hand jiving at the dance contest or necking at the drive-in. The sound has been souped up, but only die-hards will notice that the "rabba-labba-ding-dongs" seem clearer now than back then.

Most adolescent girls of today have experienced "Grease" on TV, so they will probably feel more hormonally compelled to swoon, yet again, over Leonardo DiCaprio than to moon into Travolta's baby blues.

But when all is said and sunk, "Titanic" offers lots of chaos and only a few lines that stick. ("You jump, I jump." "I'm the king of the world.")

"Grease" serves up heaps of them, sung and spoken. ("A hickey from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card: When you care to send the very best." "She looks too pure to be pink." "Tell me about it, stud.")

When a medley of "Grease" songs was released on the radio last year, it bounced to No. 1 on the charts. When disc jockeys played it at weddings, it whipped party-goers into a frenzy on the dance floor. Everyone sang along, pretending they were the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, reminiscing about making out under the dock.

The same should happen in movie theaters starting Friday.

So if the lyrics to "We Go Together" come back to you, don't be shy.

"Grease" is still the word.

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