When it became known on Tuesday night that Olivia Newton-John had died, social media literally started to overheat. Fans expressed their sorrow with a torrent of uploaded videos, songs and pictures. Newton-John twirling through a flashing roller skate disco while singing “Xanadu,” the hit from the fantasy musical of the same name. Newton-John in an aerobic outfit with pink leggings and a white headband, performing her ambiguous fitness call “Physical”. And then of course Newton-John in Grease, her most successful film. The most beautiful is the final shot, in which she takes off into the sky with the heavily pomaded John Travolta in the roadster. She turns and waves at us, laughing. Her piled up curls look incredible.
It’s almost been forgotten what a huge star Olivia Newton-John was when the disco era ended. Grease, which sparked a rock ‘n’ roll revival, was just one highlight of their long and varied career. She had five #1 hits on the US Billboard charts. “Physical” is one of the songs that stayed at the top for the longest time in the 1980s. Although some radio stations refused to play it, considering the lyrics too lewd. Newton-John was born in Cambridge in 1948 and grew up in Australia. Her mother, who came from Germany, was a daughter of the physics Nobel Prize winner Max Born. The father worked as a German teacher and, as the daughter learned thirty years later, had served during the war as an officer in the Enigma program of the secret service MI5. As a school student, Olivia formed a girl group called the Sol Four, followed by television appearances and a sci-fi film as part of the co-cast band Toomorrow, Australia’s answer to the Monkees. She was involved with Shadows’ Bruce Welch and worked with Cliff Richards. In 1971 she had her first international hit with “If Not For Your”, the brave version of a love song written by Bob Dylan. “I was lucky,” Newton-John said in an interview. She didn’t expect greater success.
“I wasn’t particularly ambitious. I was totally relaxed – there were a lot of singers and actors who ‘wanted’ it more than I did.” Maybe. But she worked hard enough for her career. She made her breakthrough in 1974: appearance for Great Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest with “Long Live Love” (4th place), first number one triumph with “I Honestly Love You” in the United States. In the summer of 1958, a leather-jacketed thug meets an Australian girl on a Californian beach who is vacationing there. His name is Danny, she is Sandy. His gang is the T-Birds, she joins the Pink Ladies. They fall in love, go to the school dance competition together, but he ends up dancing with someone else.
Just as she will later return the ring she got from him. Love prefers detours, so Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, as Sandy and Danny, rose to become one of the greatest lovers of the era. In real life, they remained friends.
The actress originally didn’t want to take on the role. Because at 29 she thought she was too old for it. The film was released in theaters in 1978 and grossed nearly $400 million worldwide. The plot can also be summed up like this: “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.
That’s the title of a ballad taken from the soundtrack, which was just as successful as the exhilarated “Summer Nights” and above all the hit “You’re the One That I Want”, an exuberant, exultantly increasing duet by Newton-John and travolta
The sequel Grease 2 flopped at the box office in 1982. “Xanadu”, in which Gene Kelly danced along and for which Jeff Lynne with the Electric Light Orchestra had provided the music, fared no better. Commenting on Two of a Kind, a Travolta/Newton-John vehicle in which God appears and angels play golf, film critic Roger Ebert remarked, “This movie should have been destroyed by lightning.” Olivia Newton-John put hers musical career with rather moderate success. She married dancer Matt Lattanzi, had a daughter with him, and released a record of children’s songs. With the album “Gaia – One Woman’s Journey” she processed breast cancer.
In 2017, the cancer returned, now she died of it in California. Newton-John was 73 years old.