The story is well known: Olivia Newton-John knew that she was too old to play Sandy, the protagonist of grease. She was 29 years old and there would be no way to fool the public into passing her off as a high school girl. But John Travolta had an intuition that when she appeared on screen, the public would want to be fooled.
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Travolta, who had just reaped great success with Saturday night fever all year above—a production by Australian Robert Stigwood, manager of the Bee Gees, as well as Grease— was in a position to demand. And she did not stop until she convinced everyone, including the Australian actress who died this Monday from cancer. When she did the screen test with her partner starring in her, she also felt that spark. At her public farewell, Travolta signed her loving message “your Danny, your John.”
The film, which was based on a musical that by then had been almost ten years in the making, was released while disco music was the mainstream and punk hit the youth, with glam rock as a precedent and its dirty, seedy and marginal proposal. In this context, the recovery of the candid 50s that the film proposes seemed totally out of reality. And it was a success, perhaps because it is what the parents of that youth who self-destructed and did not see the future preferred to see.
The soundtrack, sung by the protagonists, became the second best-selling album of the year, only behind, of course, that of Saturday night Fever. Also in Spain, it was rare for a house that, if it had a minimal collection of vinyl, not to have that album. Girls in the early 1980s played Olivia Newton-John at the end of the film, skinny on her pants and in her mouth, lifting a Danny Zuko’s chin with her gloved foot in a high-heeled sandal. The boys formed gangs of T-Birds and the girls groups of Pink Ladys.
grease, which was an immediate box office success and earned Paramount $100 million two months after its release, shot Olivia Newton-John’s musical career to the stars, which is what she had been doing before trying her luck in the movies. . She had released her first album, If Not for You, in 1971. It took the title of a song of the same name composed by Bob Dylan and was a country theme, like the other hit from that album, Banks of Ohio. The whole album had that feel to it, even though it was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London, where she was living at the time. The song was a success but the singer did not like it and in interviews, years later, she revealed that recording country songs was her decision that her managers and producers made for her. She actually admitted that she didn’t know what country music was until she moved to America a couple of years later.
In the mid-1970s, the interpreter was selected to represent the United Kingdom in Eurovision with a song with a certain fanfare and communal joy chosen by the public and that she did not like either, showing good judgment, Long Life Love. Still, she was fourth in the year ABBA won with Waterloo. But the song that triumphed on that album and that allowed him to gradually move away from country was the baladon I Honestly Love You, a kind of song that the singer’s bright and unflappable voice, in which she can show off her famously sweet vibrato, feels comfortable. The theme was number one for three consecutive weeks.
With his career on track between ballads and mid-tempo mellow seventies pop, and after the single Have You Never Been Mellow of his next album, he got the earthquake that meant grease. With his Sandy Olsson character and the songs Hopelessly Devoted to You, Summer Nights Y You’re the One That I Love the candid girl who became a powerful woman touched the sky, as in the last scene of the film. A scene that, by the way, lost in the final montage the kiss between Newton-John and Travolta for no apparent reason. When the director wanted to retrieve it for video editing, he learned that the original celluloid had been destroyed and he could only find a black-and-white working print. He tried to color it but the result was not satisfactory, so he had to settle for including it in the extras and calling for a future 2028, for the 50th anniversary of the film, the wish that the technology had improved and the stolen kiss could be reinserted.
Just like Sandy transforms into grease, Olivia Newton-John does too, empowered by the film, and takes control of her career away from nice-girl ballads. Her new album says it all: Totally hot. And on the cover, Olivia, as she signs the album, without a surname, leans against a wall wearing a black leather jacket, tight pants and high heels. In songs like A Little More Love either Deeper Than The Night a self-confident woman appears, who loosens up and enjoys what she sings.
Shortly after and with the start of the uninhibited 80s, Newton-John stars in a fantasy musical that is never well appreciated enough, which is Xanadu. Co-starring a 68-year-old Gene Kelly in the last role of his life, the soundtrack, with the wonderful title track, is signed by the British group with bombastic orchestral arrangements Electric Light Orchestra, then at the peak of their career. . Cinematographically, the film is considered unsuccessful and does not even come close to the success of grease but the idea of a nightclub called Xanadu where Olivia Newton-John skates around on roller skates and has a mural of “the nine muses” painted on it that turns out to be a portal to another dimension is an admirably delusional idea. the film producer Catherine Bray wrote on the BBC website that the conceptual decisions of this film, made to make it more commercial, without success, produced a “monster that stirs and provokes delight, pity, compassion and horror, all at once”.
After gaining momentum with the skates, Newton-John took them off to put on the leg warmers. And in 1981, still recovering from the box office scare of the aforementioned fantasy on wheels, he recorded Physical, a more dance-oriented album with a cover in which the artist appears sweating after what we assume is a grueling aerobics session. Their single, the excellent title of the same name, became his most successful solo song and spent 10 weeks at the top of the best-seller list. The sexual allusions are evident in the song and in the video clip that illustrates it, in which the singer whips overweight men until they become almost naked muscular Adonis and shiny with oil on their skin. Goldprapp or Dua Lipa have made successful versions of this magnificent song.
With Physical Olivia Newton-John hit the ceiling and from then on she did not achieve another similar success. She sang again with John Travolta, released a lullaby album inspired by the birth of her only daughter, and worked on humanitarian causes. In 1992 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and delved into her experience by composing all the songs for her next album, Gaia: One Woman’s Journey, with themes like Why me, I Never Knew Love either Trust Yourself. From there, she dedicated part of the profits from her records to cancer research and, in 2008, created the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Center in Melbourne, for which she raised funds with records, performances and auctions. The buyer of the black leather jacket that she wore in greasefor which he paid just over 200,000 euros, gave it back to the actress and singer after winning it at an auction whose proceeds went to the fight against cancer.
The artist managed to remit the cancer, although the disease returned in 2013 and 2017, causing her death on August 8 at the age of 73, at her home in California.