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If you were raised in a house tuned to AM radio in the 1970s and early ‘80s, chances are that the crystalline vocals of Olivia Newton-John, who died Monday at age 73 at her Southern California ranch, were a big part of your childhood soundtrack.
This was especially true if you grew up in Australia, where we eagerly claimed her as our own, even if ONJ was born in Britain and moved with her family to Melbourne when she was 6. I just have to think about her 1971 breakthrough hit, a wistful, soft-rock country love song by Bob Dylan called “If Not for You,” to start it playing in my head on a loop for days. “Let Me Be There,” from the same debut solo album has a similar lasting hold over me, as does “Banks of the Ohio,” a 19th-century down-home murder ballad rendered with sweet, supple pop simplicity and twangy harmonies.
Olivia was the Australian answer to Karen Carpenter, whose melodic, middle-of-the-road sounds had broken through in the U.S. just a year or two earlier. Her success coincided with that of Helen Reddy, another essential Australian female-vocal export who cracked the American market in a big way and was instrumental in encouraging Newton-John’s international aspirations.
Like many nerdy teens who desperately want to be cool, I pushed back against my childhood ONJ love for a while by embracing headier art rock like Pink Floyd and Yes, while cringing at the syrupy sentimentality of Newton-John’s ubiquitous smashes, “I Honestly Love You” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” But Nashville-tinged hits like “If You Love Me, Let Me Know” and “Please Mr. Please” had me tapping my toes whether I liked it or not. They still do.
The game-changer for Newton-John was her starring role opposite John Travolta in 1978’s Grease, which gave her a stratospheric boost not unlike that of fellow British-Australian pop kings The Bee Gees the year before from another Robert Stigwood-produced film that also starred Travolta, Saturday Night Fever.
With her music career already chugging along nicely, ONJ was reluctant to risk another screen flop after her first foray into film, a bit of pop-sci-fi insta-kitsch called Toomorrow, crashed and burned. But Stigwood’s co-producer Allan Carr convinced her to take the plunge, adapting the stage musical role of Sandy to fit ONJ by making the character an Australian exchange student.
Two songs written and produced by Newton-John’s longtime music collaborator John Farrar, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and her duet with Travolta, “You’re the One That I Want,” were added, helping to make the soundtrack a blockbuster.
While Grease became the highest-grossing release of 1978, and at that time the top-grossing movie musical in history, its fun, ‘50s-throwback “Frankie and Annette” vibe left some critics cold. ONJ was pop royalty in Australia and I still remember the collective national disappointment when the first reviews were reported out of Los Angeles, with headlines like “Olivia Newton-John ‘Bland’ in First Major Film Role.”
But there was no trace of disappointment in the effusive audience responses at Sydney’s single-screen Paramount movie theater where my best friend and I caught the film on opening weekend. That kick-started a tradition that lasted what seemed like months, where we went back every Friday night like devoted baby gays on a pilgrimage to see it again, sometimes dressed in ‘50s thrift-store finds. We knew not just every song but every word by heart.
Objectively speaking, Newton-John’s performance might not have the widest range, but it’s perfect for the part, recalling the squeaky-clean wholesomeness of Doris Day or, as is more explicitly evoked in one song, Sandra Dee. And Sandy’s bad-girl makeover in the carnival finale — spandex was edgy back then! — triggered a frisson of excitement that carried over into ONJ’s pop career as she shrugged off her nice-girl image with sexy hits like “Physical.”
The cheeky music-video for that song was an early-‘80s riff on Jane Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It featured a frustrated Olivia pining for the attentions of men focused on their gym workouts before slyly nodding to her gay fans by ending with two of the guys walking off hand in hand.
The rabid Grease fan in me — I still can’t go past when it turns up on cable or a streaming platform — was shattered by the experience of watching ONJ’s next movie, the 1980 disaster Xanadu, on opening weekend. That glittery fantasy, about a struggling artist’s Venice Beach encounter with a Greek muse on roller skates — Newton-John’s Kira — is credited as the final nail in the coffin of the movie musical as well as providing an undignified screen sendoff for one of the genre’s all-time greats, Gene Kelly.
But my feelings for Xanadu have warmed over time as I’ve come to appreciate it as a trashtacular classic. Decades in film reviewing will teach you that critical faculties are irrelevant when it comes to cherished childhood movies. My partner is 11 years my junior and he’s been part of the Xanadu faithful since his mother took him to see it as a kid and then he literally played the cassette to death. This followed their previous mother-son bonding time with Grease. (She seemed to take him exclusively to campy musicals — Can’t Stop the Music! — or horror movies, but that’s fodder for another column.)
Returning to Xanadu (under threat of divorce) has deepened my love especially for its soundtrack, peppered with hits by ONJ and Electric Light Orchestra, whose co-founder Jeff Lynne produced the record with Farrar. Olivia’s “Magic,” “Suspended in Time,” the title song and “Suddenly” (a duet with Cliff Richard, who had helped launch her career by hiring her as an opening act years earlier in England) are keepers, while “I’m Alive” and “All Over the World” are prime ELO, no matter what choreographic war crimes are happening onscreen as they’re heard.
The movie’s rehabilitation was assisted by the deliriously funny 2007 Broadway musical parody of the same name, in which Kerry Butler played Kira with an over-the-top ‘Strayan accent and Cheyenne Jackson paid winking homage to the wooden hunkiness of Michael Beck, his big-screen predecessor as Sonny Malone. Olivia proved herself a great sport, attending the show and giving it a cheerful thumbs-up early in its run.
The Xanadu debacle showed that even dud movies could launch major hit songs for Newton-John. The glossy 1983 fantasy Two of a Kind, which reunited her with Travolta in some nonsense about a vengeful God threatening to destroy the world and angels sent to save it through the romance of a struggling inventor and a bank teller, was justifiably ignored. But it spawned the fabulous pop nugget “Twist of Fate,” which like another great ONJ hit, “A Little More Love,” has top notes that are a recipe for karaoke humiliation. I speak from experience.
Newton-John’s screen work grew much more sporadic in the decades that followed — though she appeared in the film and TV adaptations of Del Shores’ beloved Texas-trash comedy, Sordid Lives, which has something of a cult following. And her recording career mostly took a back seat to her advocacy for breast cancer awareness after beginning her own long fight against the disease when she was diagnosed in 1992. She continued to address her health issues very publicly thereafter with typical grace and candor, becoming an early proponent of using cannabis for pain management and establishing the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre outside Melbourne.
Her private and public personae were explored in the 2018 Lifetime movie (condensed from an Australian miniseries) Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You, in which she was played by another golden-voiced Australian pop star, Delta Goodrem. It was about as conventional a bio-drama as you could imagine, but naturally my partner and I watched with the solemn attention of choir boys in church.
When news broke that Olivia’s cancer had returned in 2017, metastasizing to her spine, it was like a knife in the guts for those of us who had loved her all our lives. Even if we like to think of ourselves as Rizzo or Cha-Cha Di-Gregorio, we’re still all basically Sandy Olsson at heart.
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