Armchair Cinephile

It's impossible for me — and for most of my friends, I'll wager — to watch Grease (Paramount) with anything like an objective eye. While I didn't see the film when it came out, I lived with the soundtrack. (Along with the Star Wars soundtrack, it was among my first record purchases.) I can tell you the songs are dated now, but they're still filled with nostalgic charm — which is a little odd, because this very '70s film is itself a work of nostalgia for a '50s I never knew. The movie is just out on disc, and without judging its cinematic merit, I do want to testify that a cynic watched it with me for the first time this week, and got a kick out of it. As Quentin Tarantino knows, John Travolta has a star quality that transcends Hollywood fashion, and it's in full bloom here; the dialogue crackles with sexual innuendo; and it's hard not to be won over by the imaginatively staged musical numbers. And though the great Stockard Channing would probably love never to hear the name "Rizzo" again, she's a delight as the bitch with a heart of gold.

Wild Style (Rhino) is a time capsule from hip-hop's infancy, a low-budget flick about a graffiti outlaw and the hustlers, rappers, and dancers who surround him. The characters are all portrayed by non-actors — such as Fab 5 Freddy — who are playing thinly disguised versions of themselves, and while the moviemaking is amateurish in the extreme, it's a delight to see the basement parties here, where pioneer MCs are tossing out rudimentary raps over familiar beats and 12-year-old kids are breaking to them.(For socio-musical documentary without the fictional framework, see Rhino's new series of Ed Sullivan's Rock 'n' Roll Classics.)

On the other side of New York City, some hipsters were shooting Downtown 81 (Zeitgeist), another barely-fictionalized tale about an artist who scrawls on walls, this one played by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. Here, the amateurish production values have a decidedly artsy vibe, and the music filling the air is played by folks like John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and Arto Lindsay's DNA. For anybody who's seen the Giuliani-fied Manhattan, this vision of the Lower East Side will be either a horror or a romantic paradise: desolate, scary streets, lined by empty lots and broken-down buildings, where a painter can still live in a loft without competing against investment bankers for the real estate. It's Jarmusch-ville, man. Driving home the connection between these two portraits of early-'80s NYC is a scene in which Basquiat runs into some old pals spray-painting a mural: Fab 5 Freddy and "Lee" Georges Quinones, the stars of Wild Style, who are as intent as their friend on using their exotic ethnicity to dupe some art world dopes.

No offense to the films above, but this batch's real boon is A Hard Day's Night (Miramax), the first feature by a little band from Liverpool called the Beatles. As revered as they are for their work in the late '60s, it's easy to take the band's early career for granted. Songs like "She Loves You" have been Golden Oldie-ized to death; even if we know we like them, we're not always glad to hear them. This film is a quadruple-dose antidote to that malady. From the classic opening sequence, in which the lads are fleeing their rabid fans, to some of the most wonderful closing credits ever constructed, Hard Day's Night is full to the brim of the energy, wit and charm that made the Beatles a real phenomenon. Alun Owen's script makes the band mates look like the cleverest people on earth, and the musical sequences are — even (especially?) in the MTV age — unfailingly entertaining and, in the case of "And I Love Her," beautifully moving as well. It's impressive how effortlessly director Richard Lester — whose career was lauded by Steven Soderbergh in his book-length interview Getting Away With It — slides from plot into a musical segment and back out. As if the band wasn't enough, Wilfrid Brambell (as Paul's mischievous granddad) gives a dry, authority-bashing performance sufficient to carry a film on his own. He's almost enough to upstage the Four, but after all these years, they still prove themselves "fab, and all those other pimply hyperboles."

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