SPECIAL FEATURE

 

Grease 1

 

You’re the One That I Want – (J Farrar) Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta and Hopelessly Devoted to You (J Farrar) – Olivia Newton-John 1978

 

Grease was a long-running live theatre production before it became a movie in 1978. John Travolta and others who ultimately starred in the movie, had played their roles on stage, but Olivia Newton-John had no live theatre experience, nor had she made a successful movie, and she was not originally considered for the role of Sandy.

The original Sandy was conceived as an all-American girl named Sandy Dumbrowski, a poodle-skirted cheerleading sweetheart, not an Aussie ex-pat ingenue named Sandy Olssen. When chubby, kaftan-wearing, larger-than-life camp showbiz entrepreneur Alan Carr owned the film rights, he envisioned Elvis Presley and Ann- Margret in the roles of Danny and Sandy but that version of the movie was never made. Others were offered the part of Sandy but turned it down, these included – Marie Osmond, Carrie Fisher, Susan Dey, Deborah Raffin, Cheryl Ladd, and Linda Ronstadt.

By the time ex-pat Aussie Robert Stigwood had acquired the film rights to Grease and become co-producer with Alan Carr, John Travolta had been locked into the role of Danny Zukow, after Henry Winkler had turned down the role for fear of being typecast!

Stigwood had already successfully staged the musicals Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and produced the movie Tommy, he had also just completed filming the hugely successful Saturday Night Fever, so another Travolta starring role plus a Barry Gibb title song, Grease, recorded by Frankie Valli, neatly completed the tie-in between the two movies for the ever-opportunistic Stigwood.

Which completely ignored the fact that the Gibb bothers title tune was so far removed from the greaser rock hits of the late fifties, as a 1970’s disco-sounding song could possibly be, but hey, it was gonna be a hit, so don’t rock the boat, as they say.

Alan Carr met Newton-John at a party thrown by Helen Reddy and her husband Jeff Wald, and was immediately smitten, he felt she was perfect for the part, and immediately offered her the role; Travolta also campaigned on ONJ’s behalf for the part.

The final casting of the movie was pure Hollywood, all the lead juvenile roles, representing 16-17- year-old high school students, were to be played by Stockard Channing (33), Olivia Newton-John (29), Jeff Conaway (26) and John Travolta (23) – no surprises then that Olivia actually requested a screen test, to ensure that she looked the part, and that her on-screen chemistry with Travolta, six years her junior, was believable. Rydell High School was certainly a surreal place to be, but Carr created a great party vibe on set, Olivia says to this day that it was her most enjoyable movie-making experience. Tim Ewbank in his biography Olivia, recounts an incident on set one day, when Jack Nicholson, working on a neighboring set, complained about the noise to Carr, saying “Either close the door or put me in your goddamn movie!” and quick as a flash Carr shouted back “We’ll close the door Jack – I remember your singing in Tommy!

The nostalgia factor was further played up by the casting of some famous faces from the 1950’s – Frankie Avalon, a teen idol with multiple hits to his credit, Ed Byrnes famous in his role as jive-talking parking attendant Kookie, in the TV series 77 Sunset Strip, and Eve Arden from the classic situation comedy of the era Our Miss Brooks. Doo-wop comedy group Sha Na Na were also drafted in to put some more icing on the Rydell High School graduation night cake.

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The movie soundtrack is a mix of 1950’s doo wop, dance pop, prom night ballads and greaser rock and roll, it is remarkably faithful to the era depicted in the movie –1958- and Grease became the biggest-selling movie musical album of all time, it was also the biggest-grossing movie musical at that time, taking $395m on a budget reputed to be $6m. When part-time actors Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey wrote Grease in 1972 and opened the show off-Broadway at the humble Eden Theatre in New York, they could never have imagined the mega-hit-in-the-making that they had on their hands.    While subsequent movie musicals such as Frozen, Beauty and the Beast, Mama Mia, Moana, La La Land etc have relegated Grease to tenth on the list of all-time musical box office greats, they never replicated the phenomenal success of the Grease original soundtrack which has clocked up 38 million sales to date, while the movie has become an endeared classic.

For Olivia the final scene in the movie, where the virginal Sandy eye-poppingly morphs into a sex kitten, was definitive – cigarette dangling from her pouting red lips, sunglasses pushed well back on her saucy blonde curls, she licks her lips, stubs out the cigarette with her shoe, pauses for a moment for effect, then gives Danny the come-on with the sultry line “Tell me about it … stud”. With a shove of her foot she sends him sprawling backwards before dancing off through the fairground’s Shake Shack to the tune of John Farrar’s You’re the One that I Want, with Danny in hot pursuit.

 

The song was written by former Strangers lead guitarist John Farrar and because of its structure and particularly the use of bass and drums, it was more contemporary-sounding than the other songs in the movie, director Randal Kleiser didn’t like the song and thought it was jarring and inconsistent with the original  score by Casey and Jacobs. At this point in the original stage musical they had included a song called All Choked Up which was a pastiche of Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up, which was similar in content to Farrar’s song with Sandy becoming more provocative to win Danny back but also exhorting him to “shape up”, and treat her respectfully.

You’re the One That I Want became the smash hit song from the movie, it opened with Travolta mimicking the vocals of Brian Connolly, lead singer of the UK group The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz, the rhythm section drives the song along and the sound is fuller and more resonant than the rest of the movie’s score, the accompanying movie excerpt which features the song has become treasured archival footage, a cheeky epic in its own right, playfully embodying the eternal push and pull of teenage romance. The song was #1 in 13 countries including USA, UK, Aust., NZ, and Germany, sold over 6 million copies in the USA alone and over 15 million copies globally

ONJ featured in five tracks on the album, three in duet with John Travolta –We Go Together, Summer Nights and You’re the One That I Want, and two solos Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee and Hopelessly Devoted to You.

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Halfway through shooting the movie, Newton-John’s contractually-entitled vocal solo had not yet been written, John Farrar subsequently completed Hopelessly Devoted to You and again Director Kleiser didn’t like the song, however it was filmed separately after the rest of the movie had been shot.

Hopelessly Devoted to You was a typically wistful pop ballad from ONJ, it charted #1 in 4 countries and top 5 in the UK, USA, Aust and Canada, selling over 2 million copies, and contrary to Kleiser’s opposition to the song, it became the only song from the movie nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song, but lost to Last Dance from the film Thank God It’s Friday.

The film clip which accompanies the song does seem to evoke a sense of discontinuity from the rest of the movie, but after all it was an ONJ solo, shot after the rest of the movie had been wrapped. Sandy appears on the front porch of her home, dressed for bed in a chaste nightgown with a simple Alice band in her hair, holding a letter from Danny as she croons her lament at losing the boy of her dreams, an image of Danny appears on screen, and the scene closes with Sandy gently swirling the surface of the family’s inflatable splash pool – very 1950’s.

 

 

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