Live Like You’re Dying, the movie about singer Olivia Newton-John’s battle with cancer, is now out. But most people will remember the film for actress Cara Delevigne’s interview with Kelly Ripa, where she said that singer Olivia Newton-John was “the best person to talk to, the most amazing person.” Of course, this was long before the actress was even a household name.
From Frank Sinatra to Shirley MacLaine, the entertainment industry can be an unforgiving one, forcing artists to be modest with a thin veneer. Olivia Newton-John’s doc Sings My Heart Out was not a fluke.
Until 1958, Amy Winehouse wasn’t a household name when she recorded “Back to Black,” her breakthrough tune, and won a Grammy. And there was no way that Jennifer Lopez would wind up commanding movie contracts, 11 spin-off albums and a gig on American Idol like she has today. It wasn’t until 1998 that Jennifer and Mick Jagger, co-founders of the foundation off of which the streaming music service Spotify was born, crossed paths with a little-known artist named Taylor Swift.
Music has always been a polarizing art form. More than anything, it is fueled by expectations. And even during the most successful years of his career, Jagger routinely confessed to being overwhelmed by the perceived threat posed by his contemporaries—Bono, U2, Paul McCartney—on whom he based his own ideas of what artistry should be.
We, too, like to claim that our own work is the expression of a particular set of values. Unfortunately, everyone who has ever made a record can attest to that fact.
Olivia Newton-John? That’s a different story. She was unusually accomplished for someone who wasn’t an all-star performer (and isn’t even a performer in person). She wasn’t a megastar. The first time I met her was in 1981 when I flew up to Australia to do some reporting for the paper. It was my summer vacation; like a lot of people, I wanted to try out the Aussie music scene.
A few days after I landed, I rang my friend Phil to say hello. There wasn’t time to arrange a meeting, so I sent him a note with the salient facts: my interest in an interview with Olivia Newton-John, a pre-cleavage-free look in typical Australian fashion and a list of everything else I wanted her to know about me. I included a picture of me posing in a shirt that said “Phyllis the Virgin of Football.”
Phil put me on hold for a few minutes, then said, “Olivia Newton-John is calling.” Phil didn’t say much, but as he was leaving the office he turned to me and said, “You’re crazy! Olivia Newton-John doesn’t even know me!”
For 30 years I didn’t talk to Olivia Newton-John, but I thought of him often. When we made Sings My Heart Out, it was one of the many challenges that had to be overcome in order to get our first big movie made.
As a friend and comrade in her latest struggle, I hope that, when Olivia Newton-John hears the news about “Anne’s Song,” she knows that she has been the recipient of one of the most generous interviews, but that she is not alone.
Anne Mortimer Jones is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She is currently writing a book about her journey with Amy Winehouse.