Ever wondered who made that animation at the start of Grease? Meet John D. Wilson

8 July 2014


Everyone loves that very beginning sequence in Grease, when a bedraggled, hairy figure rolls out of bed and squirts a tube of brown gunk on his comb, which he then uses to sculpt his ragged curls into the iconic John Travolta pompadour. This much-loved little animation is by the English artist John D. Wilson, described by one blogger as having “animated the 1970s like R. Crumb illustrated the 1960s.”

John’s comical caricatures are very distinct, and his animations are filled with bright, popping paisley patterns, psychedelic colours, and bellbottoms so wide they look like they must be part of some kind of farce. Not many people seem to have heard of him and he is difficult to Google, which is a shame, especially because his work is so immediately recognisable.

As well as working on Grease, John storyboarded for iconic Disney films like Peter Pan and The Lady and the Tramp. Some of his most fun and vibrant work, though, is for The Sonny & Cher Show, for which he created a selection of rainbow-coloured animated music videos. The animations are mostly for Cher songs, but he’s also created some incredible narrative pieces for Joni Mitchell and The Kinks. It’s been roughly a year since John passed away, so we decided to put a list together of four of our favourite of John’s music animations for The Sonny & Cher Show.

Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi

In John’s reimagining of the shining Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi, Adam and Eve are plucked from the gorgeous green and luscious fields of paradise and dropped into an overwhelming and flashing “swinging hot spot.” They are invasively followed around by a big yellow taxi (what did you expect?), and John’s animation stays delightfully literal until the very end, when a gangly, green dragon appears on the screen and laughs in synchrony with Mitchell’s summery giggle. The animation is so literal that it almost becomes symbolic, allowing Mitchell’s meaning to subtly and sublimely resonate alongside the bright and scrawny illustrations.

Cher: Dark Lady

This blithely dark and guttural pop song by Cher is deliciously enticing and villainous. It tells the story of a woman who goes to a deceitful fortune teller and then comes face to face with some very fateful realisations. John’s animation adds vibrant and vivid texture to Cher’s wicked words. Watching the femme fatale waltz around her luxurious, candle-lit and silky pink bedroom is very hypnotic, and you’ll be under her spell with minutes.

The Kinks: Demon Alcohol

Set in a topsy-turvy, higgledy-piggledy world reminiscent to New York, John’s expressive protagonist walks the bourbon coloured streets in a drunken haze. Alcohol bottles take the shape of tar-tinged and sharp toothed demons, and the illustrations get scratchier and more demented as the alcoholism gets worst. Contrary to what the lyrics might suggest, John’s narrative ends oddly happily, maybe because Cher and Sonny wanted to keep things sweet.

Jim Croce: Bad Boy Leroy Brown

John gives Bad Boy Leroy Brown that evil, bouncy cartoon walk that’s kind of like a cross between Dick Dastardly and a jack-in-the-box. Wearing a pink suit and driving a very stylish, clunky convertible, Leroy Brown cruises around the South side of Chicago making trouble. One scene in a bleak looking bar seems to show the actual Sonny and Cher serving up alcohol and singing along with their cartoon friends, but very quickly Leroy Brown ruins their day. But don’t worry, he soon gets what he’s got coming.

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Madeleine Morley

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