You can’t really cover Olivia Newton-John’s vast catalogue of music without addressing some of her best soundtracks and the songs she contributed to them. Diehard fans will likely scoff at me for leaving out “It’s My Party”, “Glee”, and “Stranger Things”, but I want to focus on five of her more significant recordings for films. Whether she was playing Kira in “Xanadu”, Bitsy Mae Harling in “Sordid Lives” or Sandy in “Grease”, it was the music that was her greatest strength and the legacy that will stand the test of time.
We’ll return to our regular features very soon, but I ask you to indulge us just a bit longer as we at Moteventure celebrate the life, movies, and especially the music of Olivia Newton-John.
Olivia seemed to always be attracted to the fantastical when it came to reading scripts for movie options. Kira in “Xanadu” is probably the most obvious (daughter of Zeus comes down to Earth to make dreams come true), along with the mannequin that came to life in the TV movie “A Mom for Christmas”.
Today, when I think of “Xanadu”, I look at it as a music video album more so than an actual film. The dialogue, the acting, the plot – they were all are evidence of an impending trainwreck of a movie. Its saving grace? The soundtrack. Side A of the vinyl was dedicated to Olivia Newton-John, with Side B containing new tracks by the Electric Light Orchestra. With duet contributions from Cliff Richard, Gene Kelly, and The Tubes, the soundtrack was a solid hit.
In the summer of 1980, Olivia Newton-John logged 4 straight weeks at #1 with the lead single “Magic”, a track both John Lennon and Michael Jackson were vocal fans of. The title track gave ELO their solitary #1 hit in the UK (lead vocals by ONJ). With 5 of the ten tracks top-20 hits, this soundtrack was and still is a consistent seller and a nostalgic roadtrip to “a place…where nobody dared to go.”
BEST TRACKS: “Magic”, “Xanadu”, “Suddenly”, “I’m Alive”, “All Over the World”, and “Suspended in Time”.
SORDID LIVES (2001)
Del Shores cast Olivia in this film as Bitsy Mae Harling, a hard-living local singer with a mysterious and possibly illegal past. ONJ cut off her signature locks to portray the character and sang a number of songs on the movie soundtrack as well as the limited television series that followed. The movie songs are good, but the series songs are so outside the “norm” for what you’d expect Olivia to record, it’s refreshing to listen to a different side of the Aussie superstar.
BEST TRACKS: “Sordid Lives”, “Jack Daniels”, “You Look LIke a Dick To Me”, and “None of My Business”
TWO OF A KIND (1983)
This ill-fated reunion between Newton-John and Travolta onscreen proved that lightning doesn’t always strike twice. Again, ONJ leans into the fantasy element that she was so fond of for some unknown reason. God decides he’s going to destroy the Earth again, but then is convinced to save it if people he chooses will sacrifice for each other. The two selected naturally are Travolta’s bank robber and Newton-John’s bank teller turned double crosser.
The beautiful and natural chemistry between the two stars in “Grease” a few years before was non-existent in “Two of a Kind”. Once again, the soundtrack is somewhat of a saving grace, featuring the hit single “Twist of Fate” (produced by mega-producer David Foster and featured in the season 2 finale of “Stranger Things”) and the adult contemporary duet with Travolta on “Take a Chance”. Fleshing out the soundtrack were tracks from Journey, Patty Austin, Boz Skaggs, Chicago, as well as the ONJ single “(Livin’ In) Desperate Times” and “Shaking You”.
BEST TRACKS: “Twist of Fate”, “Shaking You”, “Take a Chance” and “(Livin’ In) Desperate Times”
Grease is the word. The film, the music, the stars, the leather pants and that jacket, the story and play – all a part of the tapestry of our pop culture history in the United States. A 70’s movie about high school in the 50’s, but with the groovy music sounding very much like cutting edge pop at the time. Throw in the fact that all the principal actors were well out of high school, and this sounded at the time like it would be in and out of the theater in a week (kind of like “Xanadu”).
Only it didn’t happen that way. “Grease” was a phenomenon. Travolta was red hot coming off the prior year’s Saturday Night Fever Oscar nom. Pop star Olivia Newton-John was rumored to make an eye-popping wardrobe change by the end of the movie. The duet “You’re the One That I Want” was playing on every station every hour on the hour around the world. The visuals from the trailer made it impossible to ignore. Adjusted for inflation, this film made an estimated $1.5 billion on an initial budget of $6 million.
BEST TRACKS: “You’re The One That I Want”, “Summer Nights”, “Hopelessly Devoted To You”, and “Grease”
A FEW BEST MEN (2011)
A number of years ago, Olivia hinted on social media that she was working on a dance album. Many of her fans were intrigued by the idea, wondering if it were remixed versions of her hits or something completely new. In the end, it turned out to be completely new versions of old songs, in the form of the “inspired” soundtrack to her Australian film “A Few Best Men”. If you’ve seen Jane Seymour in “Wedding Crashers” (“Kitty Cat!), Olivia plays a similar character in this film. Barbara Ramme (the mother of the Groom) ends up doing lines of cocaine with the best men at her daughter’s wedding and ends up eventually swinging from a chandelier. Oh Sandy!
The soundtrack features Olivia signature vocals being remixed, computerized (in a Cher “Believe” sort of way) by DJ’s and remixers…singing classics like the theme from “The Love Boat”, “Georgy Girl”, “Brand New Key”, “Daydream Believer”, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” and also the first single “Mickey” (Toni Basil has nothing to worry about). It also featured “Weightless” which was produced by John Farrar, Olivia’s long-time producer and writer of many of her hits. It was an interesting experiment, but perhaps for only the diehard fans.
BEST TRACKS: “Sugar Sugar”, “Brand New Key”, “Weightless” and “Devil Gate Drive”
Take a listen and let us know what you think.
Perhaps there is no better way to say goodbye to an amazing soul than heartfelt words from her frequent co-star and good friend.
My dearest Olivia, you made all of our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Your Danny, your John!John Travolta
Images courtesy of MCA Records (Xanadu) and Paramount Pictures (Grease Header)