5 Essential Olivia Newton-John Projects And Where You Can Watch Them

Olivia Newton-John was a 1970s pop-cultural phenomenon on par with The Bee-Gees. The Australian singer had it all: angelic voice, smoldering beauty, and ... well, she just had "it." Nowadays, we know well enough not to try to quantify "it," and as we mourn the superstar's passing at the age of 73, all I can do is turn you on to her essential works, where you'll either get "it" or be wrong.

Strangely, for a performer of Newton-John's incandescence and broad appeal (she routinely placed hits on Billboard's pop and country charts), she didn't make a lot of memorable films. This wasn't for lack of sizzle. She starred in one of the biggest blockbusters in film history and survived a critically reviled fiasco that would've ended most careers. She was thrown a curveball in 1992 with a breast cancer diagnosis, and she would fight the disease on and off for the rest of her life. So if she didn't want back in the white-hot glare of the Hollywood spotlight, who could blame her?

The largest part of the legacy she leaves behind is her music, which was pure pop and lives forever in my memory. When it comes to movies and television, there isn't much, but as Spencer Tracy said in George Cukor's "Pat and Mike," what's there is cherce.


When my mother took me to see "Xanadu" at the age of six, I had no idea what I was in for other than a whole lot of Olivia Newton-John and Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra, which suited me just fine at the time. I remember being enraptured through the entire film, and feeling puzzled when my mom declared it one of the worst movies she'd ever seen. With the benefit of hindsight and adulthood, I will freely admit that this yarn about a frustrated, roller-skating L.A. artist (Michael Beck) inadvertently bringing a muse (Newton-John) to life is a campy olio that fails miserably to merge whatever was left of the disco age with old-school musicals (represented by a more-than-ready-to-retire Gene Kelly).

But Newton-John is never less than mesmerizing. She's the only reason to keep watching and she also gets off the best song ("Magic") on the soundtrack. I can't promise that you'll enjoy "Xanadu," but I can assure you there's not a movie anywhere in its vicinity.

(Currently available to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and various other streamers.)

Let's Get Physical

Newton-John turning into a leather-clad, cigarette-smoking bad girl at the end of "Grease" demolished the sweet Australian girl image she'd maintained for the better part of a decade. Nevertheless, she shocked her fans (and more than a few parents, including, again, my mother) when she dropped the sweaty, soft-focus music video for "Physical." The video wound up being a part of a bestselling VHS tape in the early '80s, much of which aired on an ABC special, which is nowhere to be found at the moment. 

It's amazing how, in an era where female pop/rock stars were being encouraged to show a bit of skin, Newton-John turns the whole endeavor into a homoerotic objectification of musclebound men. People thought the pop star was catering to the lowest common denominator, but she was in total control of her image.

(The video is currently available on YouTube.)

Two of a Kind

This re-teaming of Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta did not exactly catch greased lightning. It's every bit as bizarre as "Xanadu," and in some ways, a far more interesting failure. Gene Hackman plays the voice of God, and Oliver Reed, incredibly well cast as the Devil, belts out The Beatles' "Rain." This is diverting enough, but writer-director John Herzfeld needlessly clutters what should've been an enjoyably quirky romantic comedy showcasing two actors with dynamite chemistry with swing-for-the-fences whimsy. 

Newton-John and Travolta are spectacular whenever they're together. The film just doesn't get them together enough. At least we got a killer music video out of it.

(Currently unavailable to stream.)

It's My Party

Olivia Newton-John's second pairing with John Travolta might've misfired, but she turns in a lovely performance in "Grease" director Randall Kleiser's intensely personal drama about an AIDS-stricken architect (Eric Roberts) who assembles his friends for one last revel before he dies by suicide. Newton-John plays a college friend of Roberts' who fell in love with him before she realized he was gay. It's probably the most serious performance she's ever given and leaves you wishing she'd taken more chances like this throughout her career. Kleiser couldn't help but work in a reference to Sandy, which brought the house down when I saw the film at the Angelika Film Center in New York City.

(Currently unavailable to stream.)


I've got chills. No disrespect to Val Guest's "Toomorrow" (which I've never seen), but this was the world's proper introduction to Olivia Newton-John, movie star. Travolta was a crush machine after "Saturday Night Fever," but the minute Newton-John completes her transition to Pink Lady-dom and launches into "You're the One That I Want" (a showstopper for the ages), the film is hers.

That song and her solo knockout, "Hopelessly Devoted to You," were written specifically for the film by her frequent collaborator, John Farrar. Sandy is something of a cipher in the original stage musical, so Newton-John essentially single-handedly gave the character a much-needed counterbalance to Stockard Channing's Rizzo — which is no small feat given that Channing is a powerhouse stage and screen actor. There is, to my mind, only one Sandy. 

This performance undoubtedly warped many a brain when it came to high-school dating. I don't know if this is a good thing or a terrible thing, but Newton-John's Sandy will forever be the apotheosis of the good girl gone bad. And there was no one who could've brought this home with more heat and tenderness than Olivia Newton-John. It's a shame we didn't get more, but we got enough "it" to last us a lifetime.

(Currently available to stream on Paramount+.)