My only trip to Las Vegas was in 2016, and we went there because we wanted to hear Olivia Newton-John. She performed in a small space, fewer than a thousand seats, and she made every one of us in the audience feel like we were old friends who had just stopped by for some reminiscing and an impromptu concert. Her stories were charming, perceptive about her career, modest but not so much self-deprecating as founded in a deep sense of gratitude. It was the last night of her two-and-a-half-year residency there, so perhaps she was feeling especially sentimental. She pointed out her husband in the audience and talked about how much they had loved their time there together. And that voice, that once to a planet crystal clarity and the sweetness that came as much from her heart as from her throat, was utterly undiminished. Each note was perfectly pitched and the fluidity of her dynamic range was unmatched. Her voice sounded as natural as birdsong, but in humans that only comes from meticulous training, committed professionalism, and brilliant musicianship.
And she was movie star beautiful, with gorgeous big blue eyes and a lovely smile. She appeared in several forgettable films, like a made-for-television holiday movie called “A Christmas Romance,” kind of like “Misery” except instead of torturing the injured guy stuck in her home, they fall in love. She even showed up in a cameo with her daughter Chloe Lattanzi in “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.” In her last role, she appeared as herself in “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,” with Paul Hogan playing himself as the onetime star of “Crocodile Dundee” that Newton-John tries to persuade to pretend to be John Travolta in front of an audience so they can re-enact one of the songs from “Grease.” (Spoiler alert: they are not fooled.)
But she had just two movies with an impact on the culture gigantic enough to overshadow her superstar-level success as a pop singer. Both were musicals and in both, in a way, she played two roles. One was among the most successful and still-beloved films of all time and the other was an enormous flop, though with a small cult following.
Newton-John was born in England but moved to Australia as a child and first performed there as teenager. She sold over 100 million records. She was nominated for 12 Grammys and won four. She was 29 years old and had already recorded nine country and pop number one hits when she was cast as the high school student Sandy in the movie adaptation of “Grease,” a Broadway musical written in the early '70s as an affectionate tribute to the '50s. She was offered the part without an audition but she insisted on a screen test to prove to herself, if not director Randal Kleiser, that she could do it. She wanted to be sure she could not just act the part but look the part of a character more than decade younger than she was, or at least as young as her co-star. John Travolta, who played Danny, was 25. She agreed to do it, with a contract that guaranteed her a solo. There was nothing in the stage musical that was right. So, her own producer, John Ferrar, who had written some of her biggest hits and who knew how to make the best use of her talent, wrote “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which became a number three hit on the US Billboard chart and was nominated for an Oscar. Ferrar also wrote the movie’s concluding duet with Travolta, “You’re the One that I Want.”
She was by no means a great actress, but like all great singers Newton-John had excellent timing and screen presence and she more than kept up with Travolta in the big dance numbers. She was ideally cast as the sweet, confused Sandy, singing about holding hands and drinking lemonade. And that is why her transformation at the end, with those iconic skin-tight leather pants, is such a shock. We might disapprove for many reasons of a girl changing her personality and pretending to be “fast” in order to get a boy, but somehow we know she is still sweet Sandy (and resiliently wholesome Olivia) at heart. The poppy love song as they dance through the Fun House and the car flying off into the clouds give the ending a reassuring wink.
“Grease” was a box-office phenomenon, almost $400 million in ticket sales, at the time the highest-grossing musical, and it remains a cultural touchstone, popular with today’s audiences whose parents, even grandparents were teenagers in the '50s. Sandy and Danny are icons. Once in Egypt we visited a secluded section of Cairo far from all the tourist attractions. I saw an older woman dressed in traditional clothing and head covering, carrying food in a canvas tote bag with a picture of Sandy and Danny on the side.
Two years after “Grease,” Newton-John appeared with one of the greatest Hollywood musical stars of all time, Gene Kelly, in his last film, “Xanadu.” It was a monumental failure. In part, it was because expectations were so high: the star of “Grease,” the star of “Singin’ in the Rain,” the music of ELO. But mostly, it was just bad. This is how bad it was: it was not just nominated for a Razzie, the “Golden Raspberry” award given annually to the worst films and performances of the year. “Xanadu,” along with another flop musical, “Can’t Stop the Music,” actually inspired the original creation of the award, still going 42 years later.
“Xanadu” was a partial remake of a Rita Hayworth film called “Down to Earth” about a muse who comes down from Olympus to inspire a playwright. It is not a very good film either. In “Xanadu,” Newton-John played a muse who appeared in the 1940s to a musician played by Kelly and in present day to a record album illustrator played by Michael Beck, who was no Travolta. The film was made during the five minutes when roller disco was a thing. By the time it came out, anything about roller disco was way over and any overlap between fans of ELO music and nostalgia for the 1940s was too small to be measured. In other words, no muse came to earth to inspire it.
Roger Ebert wrote: ""Xanadu" is a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes. It's one of those rare movies in which every scene seems to be the final scene; it's all ends and no beginnings, right up to its actual end, which is a cheat.” But, he continued, “Olivia Newton-John is a great-looking woman, brimming with high spirits,” and he liked her song, “Magic.” Audiences agreed. Very few loved the movie, but the soundtrack was a huge hit.
Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and was always candid and upbeat about her health, using her experience as a way to help others. In her last interview, Newton-John was asked what she wanted her legacy to be. She said, “positivity.” She wanted to be remembered as someone who was grateful for the opportunities and the support she had received, going back to the days when she would arrive at a television station in her school uniform and change for her performance to international singing superstar to dancing with John Travolta in “Grease.” She said she also wanted to be remembered for her work on behalf of breast cancer patients. She donated that iconic black leather costume to be auctioned off as a fundraiser for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre in Melbourne. Sandy was “hopelessly devoted” to Danny, but Olivia Newton-John was something better: she was hopefully devoted to her family, to Australia, to her music, and to her audience.