Download: For Olivia, My First Crush
They say you never forget your first crush. I have to confess, when I first saw Grease on HBO back in…never mind. Let’s just say this was a time that preceded streaming, DVRs, and your guide came to you in the mail once a month in what amounted to a pamphlet form.
Anyway, that’s enough of me dating myself. I do recall that summer afternoon when Grease was showing on ye olde Home Box Office and thinking that blonde girl sure is pretty, and she can sing too. It never occurred to me while watching Grease that her and co-star John Travolta were far too advanced in age to be playing teenagers, I just got caught up in the rama-lama-lama-ka-dinga-da-dinga/dong of it all.
Oddly, despite my abiding affection for Grease, I’m not typically a fan of the “burst into song” type of musical. I’m more of a Purple Rain, 8 Mile kind of guy, where the music is intrinsic to the characters’ lives. There are some exceptions, notably Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which is more of a hybrid musical anyway), and…well, I’m blanking, and that probably makes the point.
If I think about it, I don’t know that I would have fallen for Grease at any other time in my life, but I think it’s more than just becoming a musical-averse cinephile. Aside from Grease’s good cheer, pretty good songs, and likable cast, there’s really only one answer for why I still have warm feelings about this supposed rock and roll musical with a theme song straight out of the disco era:
Even before I first saw Grease, Olivia was a staple in my house. My wicked stepfather didn’t have much going for him, but his sizable collection of vinyl was one of the very few outliers. In the midst of all those dusty records (he rarely played them for some reason) were a number of early Olivia Newton-John LPs. When he was away from home, I’d put on “Have You Never Been Mellow” and play it over and over again until it was time to go to bed, or I knew my stepfather was coming home.
I didn’t care about what was cool or trendy at that age, but I later learned that as a staple of the soft-rock ‘70s, Olivia was neither. I once remember a critic saying “If Wonder Bread could sing, it would sound like Olivia Newton-John.” Funny, I don’t remember his name, but I surely remember hers. To me, the sound of her voice was like gold spun honey coming out of the speakers. I still think she had one of the most effortlessly beautiful voices I have ever heard.
And then Grease happened. From Australia, by way of England, Olivia was plenty successful before the movie came out in 1978 (the year she turned 30), but the film adaptation directed by Randal Kleiser set her and Travolta off into the stratosphere. It still isn’t hard to understand why the film became both a bit of a time capsule and a lasting phenomenon.
I know for me, those last couple months of summer, I planned my remaining time before going back to school in the fall around the replays of Grease on America’s most preeminent film network. I have no idea how many times I watched Grease that season, but I know it stretched past double digits.
I wasn’t old enough or sophisticated enough to get the double entendres in the songs, and the fairly clever discussions of sexual desire that the characters were having. I also didn’t quite grasp how I felt when in the film’s finale Olivia appeared in tight leather pants and curled up hair, I just knew that I liked it…a lot.
And look, the ending of the film can be seen as pretty sexist. Just at the point when Travolta’s Danny decides to change for Sandy, she instead changes for him. Although I think if you are feeling charitable, you might say they changed for each other.
Regardless of one’s interpretation, there can be no denying the impact Grease had on the culture and on me as well.
After Grease, Olivia tried to capitalize on her newfound film stardom with the 1980 musical Xanadu. Co-starring the legendary Gene Kelly and Michael Beck (of Warriors fame), Xanadu is one of the goofiest movies ever made. (Full disclosure: my mother-in-law, Jo Ann Harris has a small role in it). It’s hard to describe the basic plot without out breaking into a sizable grin, but it has something to do with a muse named Kira (Olivia) waking into an adventure with Beck’s character, and then there’s disco, roller skating, and Olivia singing songs while backed by The Electric Light Orchestra, and it’s all a very daft (if sweet) hot mess. Critics savaged the film and the turnstiles didn’t turn, making the film one of the biggest flops of the early ‘80s. The film’s soundtrack was a hit with the song ‘Magic’ going all the way to number one on the Billboard singles chart, and the title track made it into the top ten as well.
While Xanadu may have failed miserably, Olivia’s career in pop music stayed hot in the early ‘80s, peaking with her massive number one hit ‘Physical’ in 1981.
She took one more stab at being a full-fledged movie star by reframing with Travolta for the romantic comedy/fantasy, Two of a Kind. Unfortunately, while the film performed slightly better at the box office than Xanadu, no one would call it a success (although the soundtrack’s first single. ‘Twist of Fate’ cracked the top five), and the critics were quite possibly more unkind to Two of a Kind than they were to Xanadu.
In the mid ‘80s, Olivia fell out of favor on the pop charts after fifteen years of relentless hit-making, and she largely left film behind, other than the occasional role in largely forgettable fare. A notable exception is the fine (if largely forgotten) It’s My Party from 1996. Helmed by Grease director Randal Kleiser, It’s My Party is a lovely film about a gay man (Eric Roberts) dying of AIDS and planning one last party before dying. Olivia’s role is small, but sweet and heartfelt. I wish more people had seen it.
The remainder of Olivia’s career was largely made up of touring, a lucrative Las Vegas residency, and the occasional film or TV role.
But for one magical summer, she and Travolta were the biggest stars in the world. And when I found Grease, I learned what it was to be smitten.
You know, whoever ‘they’ are was right. You never forget your first crush.
Olivia Newton John died today. She was 73 years old.