The Bootleg Files: Olivia Newton-John – Hollywood Nights

BOOTLEG FILES 811: “Olivia Newton-John – Hollywood Nights” (1980 TV special).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The expense in clearing the music and performance rights.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is no great call for this one.

In April 1980, Olivia Newton-John was at a career peak – she ended the 1970s as one of the decade’s most popular recording stars and her first Hollywood movie, the 1978 production of “Grease,” immediately established her as a box office presence. Her star power was so strong that ABC recruited her for a one-hour variety special that would air ahead of its telecast of the Academy Awards ceremony.

But the special “Olivia Newton-John – Hollywood Nights” was a case of the star being better than her material – which seemed to reflect her occasional forays into big-screen productions. When it clicks, the production is enchanting. When it doesn’t click, it is helpful that it can be viewed today with the benefit of a fast-forward button.

“Olivia Newton-John – Hollywood Nights” opens with the typical garish, overdone song-and-dance mini-extravaganza that was typical of the TV specials of the era. In this case, Newton-John struts down the red carpet for a Hollywood premiere while a small army of dancers dressed like stereotypical movie characters and Tinseltown denizens.

The production then bumbles into the first in a series of unfunny comic sequences with a pompously hyperactive Ted Knight (clearly doing his Ted Baxter character in everything but name) and a beleaguered Dick Clark offering a running commentary on Newton-John’s rise to fame. There are cutaways to the star’s childhood community in England (the joke is that the camera crew keeps going to the wrong homes) and to an Australian pub (with Newton-John doing an amusing bit as a grimy waitress with a too-thick Aussie accent).

The special gets some of its footing back with Newton-John doing a medley of her songs on stage for a live audience, but things slow down again when she duets with Andy Gibb – while his good looks and family connections got him on camera, Gibb was not a kinetic presence and was hardly her equal as a performer. Oddly, it was decided to have Newton-John and Gibb perform Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy,” and they are joined on stage by Cliff Richard and Elton John. But the ensuing cover lacks energy and Newton-John clearly realizes it – she pushes herself vocally and physically while her male collaborators seem to be at half-speed.

“Olivia Newton-John – Hollywood Nights” was also designed to plant attention in “Xanadu,” Newton-John’s big budget movie musical that was four months away from being released. While no clips from the film were shared, Newton-John performed one of the soundtrack tunes – the syrupy “Suddenly,” a duet with an uninspiring Cliff Richard – and she was also joined by her “Xanadu” co-star Gene Kelly in a number called “Making Movies,” a dullish cinematic-inspired riff of the Eddie Cantor tune “Making Whoopee.”

From here, mercifully, things heat up considerably. Newton-John steamrolls through a delicious version of “Gimme Some Loving” while vamping her way through various movie icon looks, including a Von Sternberg-era Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda’s Barbarella and Shirley MacLaine’s Irma La Douce. This is followed by Elton John taking the piano while Newton-John offers a sincere and touching rendition of “Candle in the Wind.” Elton John then gets a solo number, the only guest on the show afforded that courtesy.

More fun is served with a ribald version of The Eagles’ “Heartache Tonight” with Newton-John joined in a diner by Tina Turner, Toni Tennille and Peaches (of Peaches & Herb fame). The women (who are clearly enjoying each other’s company) return to the live audience setting with Karen Carpenter joining them before the aforementioned male singers show up for the sing-along. The special ends with Newton-John offering her classic “I Honestly Love You” as the fade-out.

“Olivia Newton-John – Hollywood Nights” never turned up in any commercial home entertainment release, and clearing the music and performance rights for such a release would obviously be too expensive to pursue. A decent copy of the special has circulated in the collector-to-collector realm for years and can also be found on YouTube. And while this offering is a hit-and-miss affair, Newton-John’s greatness shines through and helps to compensate for its shortcomings.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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