by Nathaniel R.
Heaven is a stronger angel today. Iconic 1970s superstar Olivia Newton-John died earlier today aged 73 after her fourth bout with cancer. Our thoughts here at The Film Experience are with her surviving loved ones, husband, siblings and daughter. More specifically, they are aimed at his legion of fans since yours counts myself among them. If you are part of this group, you are surely suffering too. You see, dear reader, Olivia was my first love. Like everyone who came of age in the 80s, the trio of Fat and Xanadu and “Physical” were impossible to escape. Young Nathaniel didn’t want that either! I don’t even remember where I first learned her name or heard her sing. She has always been part of the world…
In fact, as embarrassing as it sounds, I think Olivia was the first to learn about Australia! She’s talked about Australia often, proudly displaying her nationality, incorporating it into songs, naming her store Koala Blue, and more. My best guess is that my love Olivia practically born into it was passed down through my older brother, my sister (I’m the baby of the family) since she’s the filter things tended to come through before I was completely pick up pop culture on my own.
Besides being an extremely successful singer, Olivia also leaves behind a small cinematic legacy with a very giant hit, but let’s talk about the music first…
THE PEAK OF HIS POPULARITY (1977-1983)
Olivia was a major recording artist throughout the 1970s in country music. Her best-selling album from this phase of her career was her final chapter, “Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits Vol I” in 1977. It was Fat a box office blockbuster in the summer of 1978 and the fast on his heels “Totally Hot” (his first pop album…even though the internet often falsely claims it’s “Physical” four years later) which marked the moment of crossing. 1978 was the rise of the superstar. She followed these three bestsellers with Xanadu (1980), another successful soundtrack (although the film failed), then his best-selling studio album of all time “Physical” with its iconic Herb Ritts cover and the ubiquitous titular single that became the most big single of the 1980s. “Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits Vol 2” arrived the following year and also sold millions. It was the second album that baby Nathaniel bought with his pocket money. And, dear reader, I was completely spellbound by the fold-out cover. Fold-out covers are one of the biggest thrills, from a fan perspective, of the vinyl years.
Dozen of Olivia’s favorite songs for fun
- Make a move on me (from “Physics”)
- A Little More Love (from “Totally Hot”)
- You are the one I want (to Fat)
- Xanadu (from Xanadu)
- Hopelessly devoted to you (of Fat)
- Suspended in time (since Xanadu)
- Suddenly (since Xanadu)
- twist of fate (from two of a kind)
- If You Love Me, Let Me Know (from “If You Love Me, Let Me Know”)
- Heart Attack (from “Greatest Hits Vol 2”)
- Magic (of Xanadu)
- Please Mister Please (from “Have You Never Been Mellow”) more or less dozens of other…
Olivia had another major hit as her peak in popularity ended with ‘Twist of Fate’ from her Christmas 1983 release. two of a kind. The film flopped at the box office, but it delivered one final top-ten hit and another hit soundtrack. But Madonna was just around the corner, and the Material Girl changed everything (literally) when it came to pop stars. People who didn’t live through the 80s will never fully understand the seismic impact of its arrival. Suddenly, everything before was “done” and everyone after, as well as all of her contemporaries, were compared to her, even those who had little in common. Olivia’s next album “Soul Kiss” subsequently felt dated upon arrival despite trying to be in the (sexy) moment.
Olivia remained a celebrity for the rest of her life – you don’t have that kind of career and you fall into obscurity – but there was no more success in the traditional sense. Even “The Rumor”, a fun poppy single written by Elton John in 1988 that sounded exactly as a hit record, failed to become one.
Although Olivia was always a singer, first and last, she tried her hand at film stardom a few times; It’s a rite of passage for great pop stars. Before she was famous, she played two musical roles, one in an Australian television special called Funny things are happening underneath (1965) and another in a British film tomorrow (1970).
Her third acting role was Fat (1978), released just months before her 30th birthday, and the film she will always be remembered for. It wasn’t just that it was a phenomenal success (it was one of the biggest hits of the entire decade), but that the role was a perfect fit for his abilities and idiosyncrasies. Fat was in perfect synergy with that moment in her music career where she literally performed the same arc off-screen, going from an “innocent” angelic singer to a sexy pop star. The film was a mainstay of ’80s cable and video and my friends and I knew every line of dialogue and could recite them with Olivia’s exact inflections down to a “well, thanks” to the fabricated sexuality of the finale “Tell me about it, man.”
Its risque sequel was the disco-rollerskating musical Xanadu (1980), which we have already obsessed over here. As Fat it was trying to be both a music event AND a film event, but only the former took with the soundtrack, equal parts Olivia and ELO (Electric Light Orchestra, a popular band at the time), being a big hit. The film flopped, but it culturally lived under the “bad movies we love” umbrella for so long that it even inspired a successful 2007 Broadway parody that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2008, including Best Actress for the talented Kerry Butler who made a wicked and hilarious cartoon takes on Olivia’s thick Australian accent while playing a Greek muse.
Of the three films Olivia made during her superstar years, the last is forgotten, the romantic fantasy two of a kind (1983). She and John Travolta meet (sort of) during a bank robbery and find themselves pawns in a raging battle in heaven over whether or not mankind should be saved. The plot is as silly as Xanadu’s without the benefit of being oddly pitched in visual design. Despite the reunion of the co-stars of Fat it was not a musical, although Travolta and Olivia did a duet on the soundtrack to the sappy but immensely enjoyable “Take a Chance.”
two of a kind was the last of her headlining theatrical features, but she appeared on screens on rare occasions thereafter, usually on television for series guest spots or Christmas movies. She also created two interesting LGBTQ indies with big star-studded sets. The first was It’s my Party (1996), from her Fat director Randall Kleiser, a sentimental but effective AIDS film starring Eric Roberts as a gay man planning to kill himself but first throwing a big goodbye party (which Olivia attends). She’s also in the whole campy sordid lives (2000), starring Leslie Jordan, which became a cult hit after its theatrical release and inspired a television series (in which Olivia reprized her role).
Like all true superstars, there has never been someone like Olivia Newton-John before her and there never will be again. Her unforgettable combo of angelic voice, uplifting smile, Aussie enthusiasm and apple-cheeked beauty with sunny sensuality will be missed.
Thinking back to his career made my chin and eyes tremble, as I retreated deep into memories of childhood and adolescence. We can’t live in the past, but since lost loved ones have to stay there, it’s a natural impulse to revisit. Today, while saying goodbye and thank you to Olivia, I channel Kira into Xanadu, cling to memory for as long as possible.
Keep me suspended in time with you
Don’t let this moment die
I get a feeling when I’m with you
None of the rules apply
But I know for sure
goodbye is a crime
So love if you need me
Suspend me in time