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Film Summers at the Cinema: The drifting summer days of Grease, as remembered by Brad Wheeler

If I recall correctly, I saw Grease in the summer of ’82 with a girlfriend, likely at a drive-in.

Paramount Pictures.

Welcome back to The Globe and Mail’s new series, Summers at the Cinema, in which Globe Arts contributors offer a window into their favourite summer-movie memories from years past. This week, Brad Wheeler on Grease.

I still remember the song: “Summer loving, had me a blast; summer loving, happened so fast / I met a girl, crazy for me; met a boy, cute as can be / Summer days, drifting away ...”

I was 19 years old in the summer of 1982. So was she. I didn’t have a job. Her parents had an in-ground swimming pool. I didn’t know how to spell “halcyon” then, but I do now.

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If memory serves me, Summer of ’82 Girlfriend and I saw Grease together, probably at a drive-in – either the long-gone one in Belleville, Ont., or the still-there Mustang Drive-In Theatre in nearby Picton. The nostalgic 1978 musical, adapted from the 1971 musical of the same name, starred John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as high-school summer lovers Danny (an American greaser) and Sandy (a demure Australian import).

The mother of this girlfriend did not want things to get serious between us.

Paramount Pictures / Photofest

I still think of Summer of ’82 Girlfriend whenever I see a photo of Newton-John in black leather pants. I also still think of Summer of ’82 Girlfriend whenever I smell Clearasil. These kinds of associations are out of our hands.

She and I had graduated, and in the fall would head off to universities in separate countries. Her mother had warned her not to let things get too serious. That it would be a summer romance only.

Coincidentally, the first film I saw with Summer of ’82 Girlfriend was not Grease but Summer Lovers, a romantic-comedy piece of escapist fluff starring a very lucky Peter Gallagher with Daryl Hannah and Valérie Quennessen. I didn’t know how to spell ménage à trois back then. I still do not.

We saw Summer Lovers with her mother. You don’t know awkward until you’ve shared popcorn with your girlfriend’s mother while watching a naked Daryl Hannah pour hot wax on a naked Peter Gallagher. I still think of Summer of ’82 Girlfriend’s mother whenever I see Peter Gallagher.

Summer Lovers was filmed on location on the Greek island of Santorini, apparently a scantily clad place. Was Grease the word, as Frankie Avalon insisted upon, or was Greece the word? Grease was a better film than Summer Lovers, certainly. Both were clearly fantasies, though, especially Grease, a Happy Days kind of historical revisionism. The 1950s were not a gentler, simpler time – they were a complicated, repressed and Cold War-y time. People built bomb shelters and conducted vicious witch hunts against each other. Inexplicably, Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle were major stars.

Actually, it's entirely possible that we saw Grease 2 in the summer of ’82, since it came out in the summer of 1982.

Paramount Pictures.

I’m not sure Grease has aged any better than the 1950s in which it was set. The film’s anti-empowering message is that Sandy and Danny felt a need to become something they were not – a cigarette-smoking badass and a track-and-field jock, respectively – to be compatible. And, to get back to historical revisionism, in the advertising campaign for a singalong version of Grease in 2010, certain cigarette situations were digitally removed.

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Separated by postsecondary schooling, Summer of ’82 Girlfriend and I struggled to make it to the summer of 1983. Our thing was done by that fall.

Recently, I contacted her through Facebook. Did we see Grease together? She said she wasn’t sure, but that, “I’ll let you write some possible fantasy if it makes a good story.” She didn’t mean it to be hurtful.

I’m starting to wonder if it was not Grease we saw, but its summer-of-1982 sequel Grease 2, starring Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s an inferior film.

Last month, Newton-John announced she would put the black leather jacket and tight pants she wore in Grease up for auction. She had kept the costume all these years. Funny the things you hold on to.

Next week: Marsha Lederman on the summer fright-nights of 1979′s The Amityville Horror

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