Remembering Olivia Newton-John
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Sunday 14 August 2022 By Mark St Andrew, Tomini Babs and James Wilson
Olivia Newton-John established herself as a force to be reckoned with when she represented the UK in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. In retrospect, she never stood a chance against four Swedes called Agnetha, Benny, Bjorn and Anni-Frid with a number called ‘Waterloo’. But it didn’t matter. She had forged a successful line in country-flavoured pop, which in the 1970s exploded into the charts (check out her smash hit ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’ and ‘Please Mr Please’, the best song ever written about a jukebox.) In 1978 Newton-John took on the career-defining role of Sandy in Grease, the innocent high-school senior who falls for John Travolta’s bad boy Danny Zuko, transforming her into the sex symbol of the decade.
After barrelling through the 1980s with a series of successful singles and albums – including 1981’s ‘Physical’ – she was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1990s, and shifted her focus to campaigning and fundraising for breast cancer research. After beating the disease again in 2013, it returned again in 2017 and metastasized to her lower back. She died at her California home aged 73.
For me, the indelible image of Newton-John is in Xanadu (1980), in which she plays Terpsichore, a muse sent by Zeus to persuade Gene Kelly and a handsome B-list actor nobody remembers to open a roller disco for reasons that never become entirely clear. While it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, there’s a lot to enjoy with acrobats and cheerleaders, everyone on wheels, and an exhilarating ELO-composed soundtrack. In the film’s thrillingly ridiculous finale, she disappears into the heavens on the high note at the end in a blaze of light and colour. ‘A million lights are dancing, and there you are, a shooting star’, they sing. It’s the only way for a goddess to leave the dance floor.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Jack Absolute Flies Again (the National Theatre until 3 September)
In this new comedy at the National, the team behind One Man, Two Guvnors has transported the plot and the characters of Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals to the Sussex Downs in the middle of World War Two. Caroline Quentin dominates as the local widow Mrs Malaprop, whose house is requisitioned to house a team of RAF pilots. She’s clearly having a ball with the malapropisms, and seeing her in action is to witness a masterclass in physical comedy.
All the characters are chasing the affections of another – Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson) and Lucy (Kerry Howard) are fighting over Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher), the northern mechanic with muscles queuing up behind each other, while the squadron’s dashing hero Jack Absolute (Laurie Davidson) finds he’s his own rival for Lydia. Meanwhile, Mrs Malaprop is chasing Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), the maid is reading everyone’s love letters... you get the idea. With all the hallmarks of farce, executed by a cast at the top of its game, this is a play you need to see now – take a friend and a hanky.
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
In this brave and unfiltered memoir, former child star Jennette McCurdy (best known for her role in Nickelodeon’s iCarly) exposes the extreme pressure put on her by her ‘narcissistic’ mother who passed away from breast cancer in 2013. The book’s provocative title is quickly explained. Detailing the physical abuse and emotional manipulation that began when she was just two years old, McCurdy emphasises that she ‘was not the one who dreamed of being famous’. Instead, it was her mother who went to horrific lengths to make that dream a reality, with Hollywood’s toxic work environment only adding to McCurdy’s suffering. If her mother ‘were still alive,’ McCurdy writes, ‘she’d still be trying her best to manipulate me into being who she wanted me to be’. Grief is a difficult emotion and we’re typically not expected to speak ill of the dead. But this is not a typical tell-all celebrity memoir; it’s a vulnerable, gut-wrenching account of McCurdy’s time as a child star.
The Alchemist’s Euphoria by Kasabian
On this, Kasabian’s seventh album, and their first since former lead singer Tom Meighan was kicked out of the band for a domestic abuse conviction, they’re faced with the problem of whether they can still deliver after drafting in the guitarist, Serge Pizzorno, as the frontman. The answer is: they can – and do so while managing to make something far more interesting than the standard ‘lad rock’ they’ve historically been known – and written off – for in the past.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Mark St Andrew