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Olivia Newton-John Was The Embodiment Of An Endless Summer Day in the Best Summer of Our Lives

I fell in love with Olivia Newton-John when I was six years old, wrapped in a blanket on the hood of our Chevy Malibu, watching Grease for the twentieth time in the summer of 1979 when after a day of work, we’d head to the drive-in. I never asked my parents why they wanted to see it so many times — it was obvious to me why someone might. (I didn’t figure out until some time in college my parents probably weren’t watching it at all. But I was.) Armed with a drive-in chimichanga and a Coke, I fell hard for Sandy — a lot from the first part of the film, and a little from the last. In a Freudian sense, she was the Madonna and whore in one: the representation of kindness and the representation of the forbidden.

I wouldn’t be able to articulate it, of course, but Olivia Newton-John had a lot to do with the development of my object choice. She would parlay her naughty innocence into pop immortality when, after a fulsome career as an contemporary of The Carpenters in the ’70s AM radio boom with hits like “Have You Never Been Mellow,” and “I Honestly Love You,” she broke huge on the FM airwaves in 1981 with “Physical,” the lyrics for which started to cause a stir even before the music video, featuring the still angelic-seeming Newton-John writhing amongst acres of beefcake. It burned up MTV, predated Jane Fonda’s era-defining workout tape by a year — not to mention her Grease co-star John Travolta’s fitness club opus Perfect by a full four years — the images unshakeable of dad-bods transforming into hard-bods through the urgent, tactile, erotically-abusive urgings of a spandex’d Newton-John.

The video became the prototype for an entire decade’s plastic-fantastic. The song was intended for Tina Turner, but she thought it didn’t fit into her vibe. For her part, Newton-John tried to get it removed from the album at the eleventh hour because it had veered so far from her carefully-cultivated family-friendly wholesomeness, only to be told it was already well on its way to being a breakthrough hit. She says she wanted it set in a club to offset the open sex implications of the piece, but I think it does the opposite. Forgotten now for the most part, the video ends with the beautiful men pairing off with each other and not Newton-John which, you know, is awesome. Also awesome? Her final partner in the piece isn’t a paragon of perfection, but a schlub like you and me. Her brand was kindness.

Born in England, raised in Melbourne, she had a couple of UK hits in the early ’70s before scoring in the United States with “Let Me Be There” in 1973, winning her the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance (which, as you might imagine, did not sit well with the Nashville establishment). Newton-John proved a durable talent, though, her voice (uncannily like Spice Girl Emma Bunton’s, who carries Newton-John’s torch as a solo artist) perfectly suited for the adult contemporary/country crossover space. Neither a gifted dancer nor performer, I think her awkwardness had a lot to do with her success. She seemed approachable. Not matronly like Anne Murray, or vaguely alien like Karen Carpenter, but the kind of dorky girl who might actually talk to you.

It made her the perfect fit for Sandy in Grease, the exchange student confused by being ghosted by John Travolta’s Danny and whose transformation at the end to gum-smacking, stiletto-wearing, leather cat-suited vamp was a genuine surprise, a real dose of fetishized va va voom to cap a largely innocent musical teensploitation romp. (“Hit Me Baby One More Time” era Britney Spears played on the same kind of illicit sexuality, albeit in a much more direct way.) Such was Olivia Newton-John’s appeal up until the point in the mid-’80s when she tried to become more openly sexual in her music and, in the process, destroyed the illicit part of the deal disastrously. Our attraction to her is her joy. Her complete lack of cynicism. Her total unawareness of her cuteness. We treasured her. I treasured her as an indelible presence in the dreams of my childhood of the girlfriend I hoped I could win one day, someone who was sweet, and kind, and willing to accept me in all my obvious imperfections. When I was a little Chinese boy in Colorado in the 1970s, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker and date Sandy.

Her first film role was in a Val Guest flick called Toomorrow (1970) completely disowned by one of its producers, music production legend Don Kirshner; it never received an American theatrical release. The movie revolves arond a struggling band who attract the attention of aliens whose civilization will die out without the nourishment provided by the band’s groovy tunes. Because the film’s production ran out of money and didn’t pay anyone, Guest got an injunction against the film’s distribution meaning essentially that this “lost” film was legitimately lost for decades. You can see it now in an imperfect transfer, but it’s worth it.

Olivia Newton-John plays the planet-saving band’s backup/lead vocalist Livvy in a picture that’s very much like a cross between Head (Kirshner was a manager of The Monkees) and Rock N Roll High School, complete with a few weird psychedelic sci-fi elements, broad Scooby-Doo/Partridge Family comedy, and a few rockin’ good time musical numbers. In the first five minutes of the film, Livvy walks through a crowded flat with tea for everyone, including the girl one of the band members has hidden away in a wardrobe. Newton-John is like a ray of sunlight in every scene she’s in: impossibly energetic, charmingly fussy, the motor who drives the engine. Her performance at the end of a rousing “If You Can’t Be Heard, You Can’t Be Happy” is a time capsule of the Mod era – its glory of youth reminding me a lot of the final concert sequence in Streets of Fire.

Toomorrow‘s failure ironically allowed Newton-John to establish herself as a hit recording artist for a few more years before Grease allowed her to crossover into film, however briefly, as our collective inamorata. The Grease soundtrack was massive, spawning three hits including chart-topper “You’re the One That I Want,” and standards “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” and “Summer Nights.” To capitalize on its success, Travolta and Newton-John released an album called “Totally Hot” in 1979 which was another blowout hit — leading into 1980’s legendary camp curio/fiasco film Xanadu. Starring Michael Beck, recently of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (scored by that film’s Barry Devorzan and produced by that film’s Larry Gordon), it follows the exploits of a down-on-his-luck freelance artist who meets a rollerskating muse Kira (Newton-John), sent down from Mt. Olympus to inspire Beck’s schlub, Sonny, to join forces with old hoofer Danny (Gene Kelly in his final screen performance), to open a nightclub in the old Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. It bombed spectacularly, but the soundtrack went double-platinum, peaking at number four on the Billboard charts. 

It’s easy to deride Xanadu for its dregs-of-the-disco-era excesses, but it completely understands Olivia Newton-John’s ethereal persona. On screen, she was aspirational: eternally fresh and upbeat, her energy a balm to such an extent it’s actually believable she could inspire Michelangelo (as Kira namedrops as one of her former clients) to paint the Sistine Chapel or, you know, Sonny and Danny to open an all-genres nightclub with a rotating platform, miles of neon and polyester, and a giant disco ball. Early in the film, Kira and Sonny rollerskate through an abandoned warehouse to Newton-John and Cliff Richards’ “Suddenly” and in its forced artificiality, surveying all the eras of screen musical through elaborate sets and a mechanical, in-camera rain effect, it not only reminds a lot of the fourth-wall breaking Singin’ in the Rain, but works as a romantic fantasia of puppy love.

Puppy love is the only love Newton-John felt right in. She’s not unlike Julie Andrews in that and just like Andrews, just like Doris Day, she was slotted into the role without really any recourse to escape it. So limited, she only made one other film in the 1980s, 1983’s peculiar Two of a Kind, another supernatural rom-com in which God (voiced by Gene Hackman) decides He’s going to destroy the planet unless four of his angels (including Charles Durning and Scatman Crothers) can convince him mankind is worth saving. Their proof of premise is failed inventor and reluctant bank robber Zack (John Travolta) who’s gonna get whacked by gangster Stuart (the great Richard Bright) if he can’t come up with some money and fast. The teller he knocks over is Debbie (Newton-John), who overcomes her terror long enough to laugh at Zack’s incompetence in a scene that only works because she’s so nice. But not so nice she doesn’t substitute the money she’s supposed to be handing over for receipts and deposit slips, keeping the dosh for herself. Look, I know this movie is terrible, but I love it anyway. Travolta and Newton-John have obvious chemistry. Not sexual chemistry, but movie chemistry. While fixing a doorknob, Travolta says “you gotta hold the nuts while you screw,” and it’s not naughty, it’s somehow a double-entendre that isn’t even a single-entendre. But they’re the same kind of aspirational energy: uncontainable, irrepressible. She’s Audrey Hepburn born twenty years too late. Two of a Kind is no Roman Holiday, and whatever window Newton-John had to be an old Hollywood personality was closed before she even got started. Grease is a throwback to the Golden Age of movie musicals — Gene Kelly a relic of the same — I think people recognized Newton-John only made sense as something from a different reality, but what do you do with that knowledge?

TWO OF A KIND, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, 1983
Photo: Everett Collection

As her music became déclassé (there is no more common a performer who shows up in record store bargain bins than Barry Manilow, Gordon Lightfoot, or Olivia Newton-John), and Hollywood figured out it couldn’t figure out what to do with her, Newton-John focused her attentions on being a mother, then surviving a highly-publicized battle with breast cancer and becoming a vocal advocate for cancer charities. She had a residency at the Flamingo in Las Vegas between April 2014 and December 2016 that I saved up to go to, but never quite managed the timing with the funds — something I’ve always regretted and now have reason to regret even more — and remains in my imagination as a performer as vital as any other to my understanding of myself and the world.

In her last years, as her cancer returned for a third time, she said in an interview how she dealt with the news by allowing herself a cookie when she wanted one, or a glass of wine, because “the joy of life and everyday living has to be part of the healing process.” She was only vocalizing the elements she brought to the screen in her too-few appearances there: the innocence, the scope and intensity of joy in the first experiences of every little thing. She was a reminder of possibilities: of the explosive exhilaration of first love, as well as the chance that the girl of these dreams could be the girl of your dreams, too. She was the opposite of ironic. She could pull off a rollerskating muse as easily as a poodle-skirted teenybopper, as well as a duet as a WWII-era soft-shoeing USO girl with a Gene Kelly in his still-magnetic dotage. She was a charter member of my dream-life and her death is unusually hard to take. Olivia Newton-John is an endless summer’s day in the best summer of our lives. She is part of the best memory I have of my parents and my childhood; and I’ll never be able to separate her from that. She was wonderful.

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available for pre-order. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.

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