For the generations that grew up on her hit ballads in the 1970 and 80s, Olivia Newton-John’s death signifies an important closure.
Woke up to a message from my brother. “Olivia Newton John passed away. An important part of our growing up years.”
Olivia Newton-John was a puzzle. For many years I couldn’t figure out which part of her name was hyphenated. When I finally figured it out Ms Newton-John was dancing on screen with John Travolta to the sizzling sound of ‘You Are The One That I Want’ in the iconic film Grease.
It is very difficult to articulate what Olivia Newton-John meant to a lonely boy growing up in the West Indies with only music and cinema for company. I first heard Olivia singing a love ballad called ‘Richard’s Window To The Sky’. I don’t think the song ever released independently of the film. In my opinion, Olivia has never sung anything better. “Clouds strung like beads in a gray silent sky/And I watch them and simplify my mind/One thing is clear, I know I begin from here/The passing time, it changes dreams and sweeps illusions from your eyes
Eventually, her songs began to crowd my attention in a good way, and I loved many of them to distraction: ‘Please Mister Please’ was a favourite among her chartbusters. In the song a girl pleads with a man at the jukebox not to play song no B-17 : “It was our song it was his song but it’s over/Please Mr Please if you know what I mean, I never want to hear that song again.”
Yeah, we know what you mean. This is not great poetry. But Olivia Newton-John sure knew how to belt out a full-blooded love ballad without tripping over the notes. Her voice was not sexy like Linda Ronstadt’s nor smouldering like Karen Carpenter’s. It was clean and wholesome without being dull or prosaic.
Olivia Newton-John was not a great singer. She had neither the staggering range of Whitney Houston nor did she want to change the world with her songs. She sang the songs that were within her, with a deepfelt honesty and a manifested gratitude for the gift of love and life: ‘I Love You I Honestly Love You’ and ‘Sam’ rank as the high points of her balladry. Steeped in sentimentality Olivia’s songs were often drenched in soul-cleansing tears
Not many in India know her best songs. They instead know her for the confectional ‘Jolene’ which Rajesh Roshan hijacked lock stock and barrel for a song in Yash Chopra’s Kaala Patthar, quite needlessly.
On-screen Olivia shone the brightest with John Travolta in Grease where she danced with a verve that equaled her co-star. If he was sassy she was coy. If he was wild she was mellow(her 1974 chartbuster asks, ‘Have You Ever Been Mellow?’). Olivia and Travolta were re-united in the film Two Of A Kind but the magic was gone.
Her career as an actor didn’t blossom after Grease but she remained relevant to generations who sought and found in her voice solace in a world that was growing rapidly cynical and distrustful about love.
Olivia Newton-John believed in love right till the end. She fought breast cancer for many years. But finally, it won. Her songs remain with us. They are not deep. But they are steeped in emotions, conveying to us tender delicate feelings that only a pure heart like Olivia can make us believe in.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.