Can success strike twice?
By Derek Mead
The announcement of ‘Summer Loving’ as the title of a prequel to Grease (1978) has re-awakened many memories of the late 1970s and those who starred in the iconic film adaptation of the Broadway musical rather than memories of the film itself.
In particular, the British-born beautiful and highly-talented Olivia Newton-John will wish to reflect upon her own considerable popularity in the 1970s to a level well-above Grease and of Grease 2 (1982), which did not achieve the same success.
It remains to be seen how the prequel (or backstory) succeeds in the lead up to the beginning of the original work. It will have to explain how Sandy and Danny first met and then moved on to the classic songs of 1978, although some will say that ‘Summer Nights’ has already achieved that, in a most memorable way.
Will audiences accept any other than Olivia and John Travolta even if there could be small cameos for them?
Maybe John could be involved but perhaps not Olivia, as she apparently remains content with her original performance when 29 years old and currently has more important pressures to consider. Many will be more than content to listen to Olivia and John and to watching the original film one more time, and will then listen to the careers of the two, with a justified long look at Olivia.
The prequel will have to be of exceptional standard. Look at the 1970s careers of these two artistes – how they developed during that time when unknowingly progressing towards the film, and then look at Grease itself without, of course, the prequel, and develop a general scenario about a classic film and two outstanding performers. Olivia released her first solo album ‘If Not For You’ in 1971, with the title track being her first international hit. The delightful follow up single ‘Banks of the Ohio’ was then a Top 10 hit in the UK and Australia.
In 1973, ‘Let Me Be There’ reached the American Top 10 and she earned a Grammy for Best Country Female and an Academy of Country Music award for Most Promising Female Artist. In 1974, Olivia represented the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Long Live Love’ chosen by the British public and finishing fourth although she was apparently unhappy with the song, preferring others shortlisted.
However, she included the ABBA winning song ‘Waterloo’ on her ‘Long Live Love’ album. Then, the next single ‘I Honestly Love You’ became Olivia’s signature song with great chart success and two more Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance-Female.
Olivia’s country success created some controversy with country/pop music normally being associated with Nashville artistes but her public had spoken and her success continued. Added to the Grammy for ‘Let Me Be There’, Olivia was also named Country Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year in 1974, ahead of such artistes as Dolly Parton and Canadian Anne Murray. Then, Olivia won support from the country music community with Stella Parton recording ‘Ode to Olivia’ who then recorded her album ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ in Nashville in 1976.
Both Olivia’s public and her music had spoken most emphatically. Then, soon after, Olivia moved to the US when her pop career cooled somewhat, although her albums still achieved Gold status, but she did not return to the top of the charts until 1978. However, her singles still topped the AC – Adult Contemporary – Chart and she achieved 10 No.1 singles, including a record-breaking seven consecutively, between 1974 and 1976.
In 1977 ‘Olivia Newton-John’s Greatest Hits’ became her first platinum album. All of this contributed to Olivia becoming one of the world’s all time best selling recording artistes with more than 100 million albums sold.
Then, in 1978 came Olivia’s destiny when she was offered the part of Sandy in the film adaptation of Grease with John Travolta as her co-star. They portrayed the story of two teenagers in love from very different social backgrounds, the virtuous Sandy and the rough but tender Danny. For accent reasons, Olivia’s part was changed from an American to Australian Sandy Olsson who moved to the US.
Olivia became an overnight international star as part of the biggest box office hit of 1978 when the soundtrack album spent 12 non-consecutive weeks at No.1, plus three top five singles for – the platinum ‘You’re The One That I Want’ with John Travolta – the gold ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ and the gold ‘Summer Nights’ with John Travolta and cast.
The last two singles were in the Billboard Top 5 simultaneously. Olivia received a People’s Choice Award for Favourite Film Actress and was nominated for a ‘Golden Globe’ as Best Actress in a Musical and performed ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’ at the 1979 Academy Awards.
On a personal note, in 1979 Olivia received the Officer of the Order of the British Empire medal – OBE – from the Queen. Grease the film has endured in popularity throughout the years and the soundtrack is one of the Top 10 best-selling soundtracks of all time.
Beyond Grease Olivia’s career benefited much from the film and her own success and she continued to produce albums. In 1980, she appeared in her first film since Grease the musical ‘Xanadu’, with the soundtrack certified platinum, including the title song ‘Xanadu’ with the Electric Light Orchestra.
Then ‘Magic’ became the biggest AC hit of her career and the film itself became a cult classic. In 1981 double platinum ‘Physical’ was her most powerful and successful studio album, leading to an international tour and her second hits collection double platinum ‘Olivia’s Greatest Hits Volume 2’ filmed in concert and earning another Grammy nomination.
In 1983 Olivia and John combined again to produce the unsuccessful ‘Two of a Kind’, however with a platinum soundtrack. In 1985, Olivia’s career quietened once again, and after the birth of her daughter in 1986, she resumed her recording career. She became involved in health issues with cancer diagnosed in 1992, returning in 2017 and 2018.
Olivia has said: “I believe I will win it over!” Next to her advocacy for breast health and cancer awareness, Olivia has supported many environmental causes and charities, with her courage and grace in adversity being well recognised.
However, Olivia’s career continued in a variety of ways and she was still actively touring and recording up to 2015 when she achieved her first No.1 single on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart with ‘You Have To Believe’ with daughter Chloe.
This was the first such mother and daughter single to do so. Then in September, 2018, her cancer returned for the third time.
In comparison, John Travolta’s career leading up to Grease was much more relaxed and low key. His first major movie role was in ‘Carrie’ (1976) as Billy Nolan, and then in the TV Sitcom ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ (1975-1979).
In July 1976 he had a hit single ‘Let Her In’ peaking at 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart ,and soon after, his two most prominent screen roles were Tony Manero in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977), then the big one as Danny Zuko in Grease. These films were two of the most successful of the decade and he became an international star.
At 24 years old, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ brought him an Academy Award nomination for best actor, one of the youngest performers ever nominated.
In 1980, he starred with Debra Winger in Urban Cowboy: then on to the 1980s when he and Olivia came together in a romantic comedy ‘Two of a Kind’ (1983). In the mid 80s, he was offered but declined lead roles in films that were to become box office hits including ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and ‘American Gigolo’.
It took until 1994 for him to revive his career as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
So, because of a proposal to introduce a prequel to the highly successful and still popular film Grease (1978), we have examined the film itself and its two main artistes Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta.
Olivia came into Grease with much more experience and success than John and with more popularity as a very beautiful and gifted singer with a leaning towards country music and songs initially not always widely popular but eventually accepted by her public – and rightly so. John seemed to have had more acting rather than singing capabilities. There is no doubt that Olivia ‘carried’ the film and then took her career forward, whereas John took time to rediscover himself and his career.
So there must remain some doubts about a prequel, however carefully designed it maybe. It seems that most Grease enthusiasts are content with the original and its stars. ‘Summer Nights’ an eccentric opener is a very popular introduction and a prequel may just get in the way – look at under-achieving Grease 2 and be careful!
The words Iconic and Classic need to be protected.
(copyright May 2019)