OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN 1971-1985

ONJ69

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

Grease 2Grease 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.ONJ74The 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. Chubby, kaftan-wearing, larger-than-life, openly gay, showbiz entrepreneur Alan Carr owned the film rights, and had envisioned Elvis Presley and Ann- Margret in the roles of Danny and Sandy, but that version of the movie never eventuated. 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.ONJ75By 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 “The Fonz” Winkler had turned down the role for fear of being typecast as a “greaser”!ONJ72Stigwood 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 as  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, the spirit of Rydell High would prevail, so don’t rock the boat. 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.ONJ34The 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, above with Olivia), Olivia Newton-John (29), Jeff Conaway (26, who became Rona Newton-John’s third husband in 1980, below with Alan Carr far left and Rona centre) and John Travolta (23).ONJ73No 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, it was the golden age of optimism, consumerism, even innocence, in the USA, and one of the inspirations for the movie was a song by Bobby Rydell from 1960 called Swingin’ SchoolChicks, kicks, cats, cool, yeah school…”, which made it clear that school was not so much about academic achievement, but going where your hormones took you.

Alan 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 (2008), recounts an incident on set one day, when Jack Nicholson, working on a neighbouring 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!ONJ79The nostalgia factor was further played up by the casting of a number of famous faces from the 1950’s – Frankie Avalon, a teen idol with multiple hits to his credit, Ed Byrnes (above) famous in his role as jive-talking parking attendant Kookie, in the TV series 77 Sunset Strip, ONJ71Eve Arden (above with Syd Caesar) from the classic situation comedy of the era Our Miss Brooks, B-movie actress Joan Blondell as the waitress at the Frosty Palace café, comedian Syd Caesar as Vince the perennially unsuccessful sports coach, and comedian Alice Ghostly (below) as the rogue auto shop teacher. ONJ78Location footage used actual high schools in California, Venice HS for the exteriors, and Huntington Park HS for the interiors, the doo-wop comedy group Sha Na Na were also drafted in to put some more icing on the Rydell High School graduation night cake, as the prom night band.Grease 3The 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 USD$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, re-released several times, and a staple of prime-time TV programming. The video was released for rental in Jan 1990 and grossed USD$96 million with sales in excess of 11 million, Olivia had been signed for the  bargain-basement fee of USD$125,000 to star in the movie,  but this was more than compensated for as her contract included a 2.5% share of revenue, it amounted to a very tidy sum indeed.ONJ28For 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, leather jacket and spray-on black slacks, all topped off by 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.ONJ80The 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 lyrically similar to Farrar’s song with Sandy becoming more provocative to win Johnny 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 featured the song has become treasured archival footage, a cheeky epic in its own right, playfully embodying the eternal push and pull of teenage romance, ending with the slightly surreal final moment when Sandy and Danny in a supercharged Ford De Luxe Convertible literally fly out of the fairground into the sky, heading for a life of domestic bliss, as Bobby Rydell had already predicted “We’ll have a house, a car, a swimmin’ pool / I said Wo, wo, wo,I go a swingin’ school.” 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.   Grease 4Halfway 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 accompanied the song does seem to evoke a sense of discontinuity from the rest of the movie, but after all it was an ONJ solo, she appears on the front porch of Rizzo’s home after a Pink Ladies slumber party, 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 blow-up splash pool – very 1950’s.  ONJ76Before the year was out Olivia had released her eighth studio album Totally Hot, which was designed to capitalize on her post-Grease market momentum, the cover art could have almost been a still photo from Grease, Olivia wearing all black leather and adopting the same kind of sultry pose that so fascinated John Travolta in the movie’s finale. John Farrar was again producing the album and he contributed several songs, including the first single lifted from it, A Little More Love. There was a much stronger pop-rock sensibility about this album, a more aggressive up-tempo sound, less country, and Olivia contributed three songs to the set, including the title track. The record was another million- seller, charting #3 in the US, #4 in the UK, #2 Canada, and top ten in Australia, Ireland, Belgium, and NZ.

Grease proved to be the musical that just kept on giving, in 1990 the Grease Megamix featuring three of the iconic ONJ and John Travolta songs from the show – You’re The One That I Want, Greased Lightnin’, and Summer Nights was released and immediately stormed the charts, it was #1 in Aust for 5 weeks, top ten throughout Europe, #3 in UK and #12 in the USA, with global sales in excess of 1.5 million copies.ONJ77

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