All opinions expressed in this article are those of the person quoted and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the other team members or ESC United as a whole.

Three weeks ago, the world lost one of its biggest stars when Dame Olivia Newton-John passed away due to cancer at the age of 73.

Newton-John, who came in fourth at Eurovision 1974 with “Long Live Love,” dominated the adult contemporary and country charts in the 1970s before moving on to the pop charts with rafts of Number Ones on the British, American, Australian, Dutch, French, Canadian, German and many others’ charts.

But Newton-John’s star also shone on film, with her turn in 1978’s Grease being a massive commercial success. And today, three of our writers comment on the Newton-John films that personally touched them. Though Newton-John’s film career was not as successful as her music career – one suspects she actively avoided Hollywood rather than trying again after a couple early ’80s commercial flops – no-one can argue she was anything but the highlight in the films she starred in.

Oklahoma’s very own Connor Terry will look at arguably Newton-John’s cinematic pinnacle in Grease, Yorkshire born California resident James Maude will assess the criminally underrated Xanadu, and our newest writer, KP, from Vermont, will let us know about a late Newton-John effort that only the hardiest of Tim Horton’s swilling and poutine eating among you have heard of, Score: A Hockey Musical.

Grease (1978) – Connor Terry

When you think about Olivia Newton-John you think of two specific things – her hit song “Physical” and her iconic portrayal as Sandy in the film adaptation of Grease. And while the prior is a wonderful bop of a tune that I love to listen to, Grease will always have a special place in my heart. Growing up with an older sister in the school’s theater program, I had the opportunity to attend the local high school’s production of Grease that she had worked hard on. It was the first musical that I remember seeing at the time (although technically I saw Cats at a very young age….we don’t talk about that though) and I was obsessed with musicals from that point forward.

Olivia’s impact on the film is astronomical. In fact, many people don’t know that writer Bronte Woodard actually rewrote the film’s lead character from American-born Sandra “Sandy” Dombrowski to Sandy Olsson – a girl from Australia whose parents moved to America – in order to fit her Australian accent into the movie adaptation of the musical. And despite releasing in theaters in 1978, Grease the movie has sparked public interest for its 45 year life.

In the US alone, the film and its cast were nominated for 16 individual awards across seven award shows, with Olivia being nominated for three of the awards on her own (she would go on to win only one of the three from the 1979 People’s Choice Awards). The film was also inducted into the US National Film Registry in 2020. For those who may not know, the NFR is a collection of films that are selected for their historical, cultural, and aesthetic contributions to the American film industry, with only 825 films currently being preserved in the registry.

In 1998 on its 20th anniversary it was re-released to American theaters, and in its opening weekend of March 27th-29th, it was the second highest grossing film behind James Cameron’s hit-film Titanic (which was also inducted into the National Film Registry in 2017). The film’s soundtrack has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and back in January 2022 was #3 on the US Billboard Soundtrack Albums chart. The musical has been revived many times (five times to be exact!) and despite not being in the original show, the first revival added “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One that I Want” into the show’s script. These additions have remained for all future runs of the stage musical on Broadway, West End, and around the globe.

While I know that my colleagues will continue to discuss the impact that her other roles have had – I believe Grease is the reason that Olivia Newton-John has stayed a universal household name, and the reason I fell in love with musical theater.

Xanadu (1980) – James Maude

When I wrote for and was an Arts & Entertainment Editor at The Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper, I often used to have lunch outside the William Pitt Union Building on a bench dedicated by the school to alumnus Gene Kelly (Economics, 1933). One day, a theater major came up to me to roast me for a theater review that one of my writers had done of a play she was in. For some reason she had rolled up on rollerskates, and the combination of a woman on skates (though she looked more like Ashley Laurence from Hellraiser than Olivia Newton-John, but I digress) and Gene Kelly put in my mind that evening to go to my local video store and rent a VHS copy of Xanadu before swinging by the beer distributor for a case of Iron City.

I had only heard of the infamous Xanadu at this point, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was nowhere near the “bad” movie snarky college students had painted it as. Sure, it has its faults. Though the camerawork, set design, choreography and set design are top drawer, it is evident those four departments never had a meeting to optimize the blending of the four. For instance, one sequence blended jazz dancers from the ’40s with punk-rock dancers from the ’80s, with both sets and dancers being moved together, and the effect is the guys from Heaven Shall Burn violently moshing into a Zoot Suit Riot.

However, the true stars are Olivia Newton-John, and her performing the music of ’70s pop rockers Electric Light Orchestra. She stars as Kira, one of the nine Greek muses of Olympus, who is sent down to Los Angeles to help a struggling artist called Sonny (played by Michael Beck, who you should check out in the superb Walter Hill thriller The Warriors). She also meets a wealthy construction magnate played by Gene Kelly, who she inspired as a big band leader in the 1940s, and she connects him and Sonny to create a fusion ’40s/’80s rollerskate disco club called Xanadu. The film skates the line between the two thematic eras, sometimes falling on its arse (who shows Gene Kelly dancing and roller-skating but never showing his feet?) but occasionally gliding gracefully between eras.

Newton-John has never looked more radiant, and despite what must have been a difficult production with some awkward set pieces to navigate, none of the film’s issues fall on her. The public thought so, with “Magic” being a Number 1 hit on the United States’s Billboard Hot 100 and “Xanadu” hitting Number 8 there and hitting Number 1 in the United Kingdom. The film is a fever dream. I watched it later without the Iron City to confirm it. Like the millions of shooting stars referenced in the theme song, the neon glow of Olivia Newton-John will never be dimmed, an inspiration and a muse to us all.

Score: A Hockey Musical (2010) – KP

There is a moment in the 2011 indie film Score: A Hockey Musical where Olivia Newton-John sings the line in a clear, high voice, “Look at the temperature, it’s colder than Venus You’ll get frostbite on your-” only to be cut off by her character’s husband frantically sing-shouting over her, “TOES”. It is the kind of moment that could almost be followed by a classic sit-com record-scratch-you-might-be-wondering-how-I-got-here voice over; A beloved international super-star, working through clunky melodies about the evils of organized sports in a film almost certain to never be seen outside of the festival circuit.

However, not every performer is lucky enough to reach a stage in their career where they can pursue projects simply for the love of the game, and each time Olivia Newton-John gasps and grabs her husband for stability in shock as her handsome son teaches her something about hockey against her will, the human element I find myself connecting with most is not the struggle of a mother learning to let go of her sheltered son, but with a person doing something utterly insane just for kicks.

There is such a fine line between love, hate, and hate-loving. Olivia Newton-John’s charisma threads that needle throughout the film to create a piece so whimsical and delightful in spite of it’s own fatal flaws that it tests the limits of how to even measure the quality of a piece of art. As she wails the long notes of Ordinary Boy, she radiates with a joy through her deep mourning as if the character Hope will break at any moment, not only from the weight of pain and sorrow for her beautiful intellectual boy forsaking his ideals and passion for Hockey of all things, but also because under it all is a professional channeling years of her own ideals and passion into potentially the campiest and least consequential performance of her career. It’s a tension which happens to be inherently funny, as if the whole film is one long blooper reel. I like to imagine this role was a gift she gave herself, an easy paycheck on a fun set making something for the love of it, but regardless, it is a gift to us all.


What Olivia Newton-John movie do #YOU like? Are there any of her movies that #YOU love that we did not mention? Let us know in the comments below, on our social media, and in our forum.

Load More Related Articles
Load More By James Maude
Load More In 2022

Leave a Reply

Check Also

Junior Eurovision Team Reviews: Our Thoughts on Junior Songfestival 2023

The below editorial features the opinions and views of the quoted reviewer and do not nece…