The new year started with a turn of foreign events, as I wrote last week. Capitalism Magazine’s editor and publisher, without whom this blog, site and many articles would not be possible, asked to reprint it. Read my commentary on the day America’s impeached president of the United States ordered a pre-emptive and proper retaliation against Islamic Iran, the first serious strike against this enemy of Western civilization, here.
Iran attacks America, November 1979
Since the strike that killed a general for Iran’s army of Islamic terrorist proxy gangs and regimented soldiers of Allah, Iran has attacked America and a Ukrainian passenger jet carrying 176 innocents with missiles. The American president pledged this morning that, while showing restraint by declining to hit back for the moment, he will prevent the state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons. When his predecessor brokered a deal with Iran that returned billions of dollars which were withheld after Iran attacked America and seized our embassy, capturing 66 Americans as prisoners of war in Iran’s jihad (“holy war”) against the West, I called it Obama’s death pact. Horrifically, for the Americans and others, including 63 Canadians on board the Boeing 737 Iran shot down in Teheran, death or its imminent threat became real thanks to Obama’s Iran deal. Barack Obama continued U.S. selflessness in foreign policy which, for decades, appeased Iran.
May appeasement end with military defense ordered and enacted by President Trump.
Thirty-five years after it debuted in theaters, I watched a notorious movie by director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, One from the Heart). Read my new review of a restored version of Mr. Coppola’s 1984 motion picture, The Cotton Club, now available on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming for its 35th anniversary, here.
Though I never saw the original in either theatrical or home video release, I was not disappointed in The Cotton Club (encore edition). It isn’t perfect, as I write in the review. But its jazz and tap dance scenes offer rare and exquisite entertainment.
The Harlem-themed epic has an unusual history. This is Mr. Coppola’s first movie after a self-financed 1982 musical, One from the Heart, lost money. The Cotton Club was made and financed by a range of contentious principals, such as the late producer Robert Evans, and others, such as Orion Pictures, now owned by MGM, which Lionsgate purchased, acquiring its library years ago.
The nightclub, where in reality only Negroes were allowed to perform for an exclusively white audience, was a swank joint on Manhattan’s upper end. The film features a score by the late composer John Barry, leading performances by Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee (the 1976 original remade with Whitney Houston in Sparkle) and the late Gregory Hines. Also look for Mario Van Peebles, Gwen Verdon, James Remar, Maurice Hines, who appears in a home video segment with Mr. Coppola, Lawrence Fishburne (Boyz N the Hood) as a thug named Bumpy Rhodes, Jackee Harry (227), Jennifer Grey, Nicolas Cage, Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne and Woody Strode (Sergeant Rutledge) as a club doorman. Music by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong is fabulous.
“This is the movie I meant you to see”, Mr. Coppola, referring to the additional 20 minutes, tells a New York audience in the Q&A feature in the bonus segments. The panel includes disclosures about lawsuits, attempts to steal the negative and a murder trial surrounding The Cotton Club, which debuted in the fall of 1984. Francis Ford Coppola also remembers reading and being influenced by Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, with a black character and Maurice Hines recalling his late brother, Gregory, and their grandmother being an original Cotton Club showgirl.
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Finally, my editor informed me this morning that my article about Pittsburgh and its connection to Ayn Rand (1905-1982) for the winter edition of the print publication Pittsburgh Quarterly, is featured on the online version’s cover. Read about Rand, who revered the Industrial Revolution, and the city of bridges, steel and progress, here.
Years ago, I wrote movie reviews for a website in which I was a partner, editor and writer, which I later sold to an Amazon.com subsidiary. One of them was a review of director Roland Emmerich’s environmentalist movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which I did not praise, let alone recommend. I titled the 2004 article, which was published prior to the film’s debut, “Ecozilla”. The article’s no longer available. Like much of my writing, it’s not included on my site’s archives.
An English professor in California found and read the review; she cites it in her book, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
Yet the author Nicole Seymour, the associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, who also authored a book titled Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination, falsely describes me in her book as a “conservative”. The author made no attempt to reach out to me in advance of publication, let alone attempt to confirm her assertion as fact. I do not claim to be and have never described myself as a conservative writer, journalist or thinker. In fact, most of what I’ve written about conservatives, including my commentary for newspapers such as the Arizona Republic, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Daily News and my blog post “Conservatives and the Tea Party”, which is publicly available, disavows conservatives.
Additionally, on the movie website the author references, most of my writing, including reviews, columns and other articles, explicitly criticizes conservatives, including President George W. Bush. My review of one of the religious movies released by Disney, and another article criticizing fundamentalist Catholic Mel Gibson, received some of the most threatening reader feedback of my career, including death threats.
Nevertheless, Professor Nicole Seymour writes that:
[a] conservative review of the 2004 climate change-themed blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow echoes liberal Jones, though much more sourly: “Prepare for more religious propaganda: [The Day After Tomorrow] is the New Left’s doomsday evangelism with ecology as its religion“ (Holleran 2004). A political conservative complaining about “religious propaganda” is, of course, an irony in itself though one a bit beyond the scope of this chapter.”
This distorts the truth, adding a deeper distortion by implying that this writer is also religious; indeed, it’s clear that the Cal State Fullerton scholar holds that every conservative is inherently religious (is Seymour unaware that one can be both secular and conservative, as one, such as Hillary Clinton or Pete Buttigieg, can be both religious and liberal?) Again, the author made no attempt to reach out to me in advance, during or after publication. The author simply prejudged me as a “political conservative” and as a religious conservative at that based on a negative review of an environmentalist movie. The California State University professor’s dishonesty provides an important example of an academic jumping to conclusions, not going by facts, not even attempting to go by facts, and distorting the truth with abandon.
As usual, and as is increasingly necessary, particularly with regard to claims by those promoting environmentalism, the reader should doubt and scrutinize what he reads. This is because, to paraphrase a terrific line, what you read ain’t necessarily so.
Every adult who reads can probably gain from reading Me by Elton John. It’s not that what he writes about his music, work and life is especially philosophical, though there’s reflection and insight in what he writes. It’s not that his autobiography is salacious, “juicy” or filled with shocking details, though he writes about show business, being gay and struggling with severe drug and alcohol addiction, so there’s plenty of shock. What moves me about Me is his remarkable ability to express why he finds inner strength in flaws and insecurities — Elton John doesn’t neatly wrap, curl ribbons and package it like that — and come out an egoist.
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Of course, he never uses that word. But, like the movie that his husband David Furnish produced about his life — Rocketman, hands down this year’s best motion picture — expressing selfishness as a virtue is crucial to what makes the audience rapt with attention. Egoism powers every tale of why and how he studies lyrics, thinks about composition, hides from humanity, feels ashamed, dresses up, has another drink, cuts lines of cocaine, jumps on the piano, dazzles thousands at Dodger Stadium and sees in meeting Elvis his dark and lonely future.
I suppose the value of Me depends to a degree on what you know about Elton John and whether you like his music, which spans half a century from the intimacy of “Tiny Dancer” and pop masterpieces “Crocodile Rock” and “Elderberry Wine” to the majestic introspection of “The One” and “Home”. Here is an artist who met, performed or composed with and survived the greatest and most enduring musical artists of our time — Elvis, The Beatles, Whitney, Michael, Prince — and lives to tell.
This should not be taken lightly. If you know or want to know about the culture since the 1960s and how one man who is among the wealthiest, most accomplished and powerful artists of the modern era escaped the self-sacrifice destroying civilization, read Me.
I think you’ll be amazed. I am, even as I write. Having lost loved ones to alcohol, drugs and various means of trying to evade reality, the greatest of whom introduced me to Elton John as a boy, I was already in awe of his courage, heroism and life. Me gives new reasons to look up to Elton John.
I also think you’ll laugh out loud. With help from writer Alexis Petridis, a journalist he acknowledges and thanks, Elton John’s dry wit entertains. His humor never denigrates or detracts. Hewinks more than he digs, often with cliches and metaphors, which makes his side lines more enjoyable because you know they’re not the point. Each of these lines made me laugh, sometimes while reading to the point that I had to put the iPad down and wipe the tears.
Rarely are there tears of sadness, though the second half of Me is rightly more somber as Elton John delves into details of his fall and rise. This is old hat if you’ve been there — to AA meetings, to interventions, grasping for the phone at three in the morning, stumbling to the toilet the morning after (or an hour after you’ve emptied a bottle into your bloodstream) — and you’ll breeze through Me like a roughened roadie on tour. If not, you’ll know that you’re blessed to not know what you don’t know and you’ll more deeply appreciatewho you are knowing who he is and has chosen to be.
Like all great stories, well, my favorites anyway, Me by Elton John is a story of the self-made man. As such, it is riveting. I was never exhausted while reading. I was gripped. Not only for personal reasons and never for curiosity in some lewd or peculiar detail. So, bitchy gossip types need not read this book—Me is not for them—and neither should their flipside doppelgängers, rationalistic bean counters that disdain anything but worshipping at the altar of trivia, statistics (pardon me, “metrics” and “analytics”) and neverending streams of pictures, games and nonsense.
Me, like Rocketman, is for the reader who thinks … for himself.
When Elton John does indulge in celebrity stories, and he covers all the known feuds, snubs and controversies, from Liberace to Madonna, it is never with a snivel or a sneer. He’s never the bitchy queen though he’s the first to admit that, at times, at his worst, he has been. Instead, he writes with ease and a sense of purpose as he looks back with clarity and humor — and he gets to the point. For example, reflecting on his eccentric wardrobe and his career’s catapult in Los Angeles, he writes:
The clothes from Mr Freedom weren’t outrageous because they were sexy or threatening, they were outrageous because they were larger than life, more fun than the world around them. I loved them. Before I went onstage at the Troubadour, I put them all on at once. So instead of an introspective hippy singer-songwriter, the audience were greeted by the sight of a man in bright yellow dungarees, a long-sleeved T-shirt covered in stars and a pair of heavy workman’s boots, also bright yellow, with a large set of blue wings sprouting from them. This was not the way sensitive singer-songwriters in America in 1970 looked.”
That’s certainly true and John’s candor and insight shows a glimpse of the root of his appeal as a showman, as a composer, as a performer. His combination with the brilliant — Elton John at his saltiest might say fuckin’ brilliant — Bernie Taupin often writing lyrics with John’s astute sense of his audience, culture and the world at large, including what it needs in romanticism, is awesome. This is impossible to overstate.
The above quote subtly shows his disregard for the avant-garde, the pretentious, the chattering dilettante set and their darlings, including their penchant for holding up radical New Left terrorists, hippies and wannabes. Whether he knows it, and Me only barely implies that he does, Elton John the star stands opposed to that ethos. Me reflects this over and over.
Whether he’s adopting rapper Eminem as an AA charge, performing with pride at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding — and being handsomely paid for the endeavor — or refusing to profit from friends John Lennon’s or Princess Diana’s deaths, Elton John in Me writes as a man acting on principle.
This makes his memoir more enjoyable. Aside from learning details about his most indelible songs, concerts and famous friends, partners and meltdowns, John brings a brisk but substantial flair — not flamboyance — to the story of his life until now. Every flaw, every fact, every major chapter — from performing at the Troubadour in LA to suicide attempts and the agonizingly total detachment from his unloving parents — gets its due.
Ultimately, his life also gets his unyielding judgment. As he writes about his notorious shopping and tendency to bestow those he loves with gifts:
Over the years, I’ve had therapists tell me that it’s obsessive, addictive behaviour, or that I’m trying to buy people’s affection by giving them gifts. With the greatest of respect to the members of the psychiatric profession who have said that sort of thing to me, I think that’s a load of old shit. I’m not interested in buying people’s affection. I just get a lot of pleasure out of making people feel included or letting them know I’m thinking about them. I love seeing people’s faces when you treat them to something.”
Accordingly, he concludes with an estimate of his own value to himself:
I earned that money by working hard, and if people think the way I spend it is excessive or ridiculous, then I’m afraid that’s their problem. I don’t feel guilty about it at all. If it’s an addiction, well, I’ve been addicted to far more damaging things over the years than buying tableware and photographs. It makes me happy. You know, I’ve got 1,000 candles in a closet in my home in Atlanta, and I suppose that is excessive. But I’ll tell you what: it’s the best-smelling closet you’ve ever been in in your life.”
Elton John writes about the late Ryan White, who changed his life, and his efforts to eradicate the scourge of AIDS. He acknowledges and, strictly as deserved, pays tribute to his band, the elusive and mythical countryside Englishman-turned-American cowboy Bernie Taupin, his ex-wife, his ex lovers, his family, friends and business partners. He writes about everything you can imagine: “Honky Cat”, Lady Gaga, scoring The Lion King, composing Aida with Tim Rice, touring with an orchestra, playing piano, his sexual voyeurism, “Philadelphia Freedom”, observing Freddie Mercury on his death bed, trying to save George Michael from himself, going live with Aretha, making an album with Leon Russell, how he met the man who’d become his husband, his horrifying mother, his record album triumphs including The Diving Board.
In essence, it is as though Elton John, whether drunk, stoned or sober, grabbed the traditionalism (really, religionism) being shoved down his throat and crushed it with his bare hands, and that he did so at the risk of destroying himself in the process. As an artist, a craftsman, just as he took movies, albums, shows and Bernie Taupin’s poetry, he then proceeded to remake these bad traditions, ideas and practices and repurpose them into a radically new and improved approach to making a life of his own.
He’s done it—he did it—and this in reading Me is why you begin to realize how he came to be including why he came to be among the only Seventies superstars to make it out alive.
That this alcoholic and drug addict, working man and titan of industry, lifelong soccer spectator and pro sports team owner, husband and father lives to tell this tale is itself a testament to what he calls in the dedication his amazing life. Me is simple, humorous and, fundamentally, because he refuses not to see that “the sun’s been quite kind”, an absolute joy to read. The book lives up to the glory of its unrepentant and egoistic title, like a song graced by piano sung in his soulful voice, holding on exactly the right notes in perfect harmony.
My title for this post refers to what’s essentially the impetus for a new book, pictured here, by my editor and friend David Sweet. I haven’t yet read Three Seconds in Munich though it’s on my reading list, which is impossibly long.
Sweet was my sports editor at the Glendale News-Press during the 1990s. We became friends and have since worked on many assignments, including a series of regional history articles for a publication in Chicagoland. Read my review of Sweet’s debut book, a biography of Lamar Hunt, the man who invented the term Super Bowl, here.
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Sweet’s followup is a work of new non-fiction. This time, he writes about the 1972 Munich summer Olympics. I remember them well (read my remembrance here). However, I did not exactly recall the untold story of the U.S. basketball team’s victory over Soviet Russia, a gold medal win which was denied to the U.S. Olympians for reasons Sweet explains in detail, with notes, bibliography and an index.
What’s more, he integrates the tale of this amateur athletics injustice with the horror of the Arab terrorist siege on the Olympic village. I know this because the author asked me to find, investigate and research and, if possible, interview men on the U.S. basketball team, one of whom I was able to persuade to conduct an interview. On the record, one of America’s Olympics basketball players recounts his memory of the controversial game and his encounter with Palestinian terrorists as they forced Jews onto mass transit toward what would become their mass execution in Germany.
“They’re all gone,” ABC Sports journalist Jim McKay told the television audience that summer in 1972. McKay was referring to the 11 Israelis who’d been seized by Arab terrorists and were then slaughtered in an act of war which was never avenged. Steven Spielberg made an awful, pro-Palestinian movie about Israel’s pinprick response to the siege by Black September (read my review of the 2005 film Munich). Documentaries also account for the assault. Only David Sweet, with a little help from yours truly, contextualizes this act of terrorism within the arena of sports.
Look at Hong Kong, relinquished by the British to Communist China in 1997, for an example of the appeasement that the West’s response to Palestinian terrorism at Munich set forth. Mass murder in Munich was, as I’ve written, an early strike in the Arab-Islamic axis of terrorism. That Israel accommodated Arab demands and negotiated with terrorists cast as standard practice the West’s appeasement of thugs.
Sweet focuses on what the world’s best athletes came to do in Munich: compete in sports. The Americans (and Israelis) did. Despite being thrust, one of the Americans at gunpoint, into an act of war, the Americans won. In the passion of athletic triumph, this band of Americans was robbed of what they earned when they defeated the Communist regime that had funded the terrorists that, in turn, gunned down the Jews.
To this day, the U.S. basketball team accepts nothing less than victory. The whole team refuses to accept anything but the gold medal they rightly won in that game with the Soviets. With his new book, Sweet offers a counterexample to both that singularly evil act of Soviet-made Palestinian terrorism and the debacle which has been Western appeasement. In Three Seconds in Munich, David Sweet chronicles the mens’ team journey, game and unified act of principle for the first time.
The Goldfinch inspires. It’s the second movie this year that I instantly knew I wanted to feast on for its sumptuousness again as soon as it was over. The movie, based on a novel by Donna Tartt, unwraps, rewraps and unwraps its mysterious gauze. What remains is refined, simple and respectful of an ideal. This alone makes it exemplary.
I watched the Warner Bros. film this week at one of Pacific Theatres’ theaters at the Grove, having never read the book, which The Goldfinch makes me want to do. Since I lost my friend and fellow movie critic Kathy to suicide years ago, I often attend press screenings alone. I tend to avoid the movie media herd. They’re brash. Some cackle across the theater as they file in, shuffling and putting on a show of conversation no one but them wants to hear. They chatter or act out in shrill voices about what movies they “looove”, by which they mean the opposite, and hate. Despite my efforts, it was impossible not to learn in advance that the pack hates The Goldfinch.
Now that I’ve seen it, it’s easy to see why. Like 2019’s best picture so far, Rocketman, that other film I immediately knew I wanted to watch again, The Goldfinch is multi-layered, deep and serious. Naturally, dilettantes, who gather in tribe, hate it for its earnestness. But “[t]here’s fun in being serious,” as jazz composer Wynton Marsalis once observed.
So, the dissonance of modern life begins in a visual haze as a narrator invites the audience into a hotel hallway. This starts the peculiar tale of troubled young Theo (Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort). With lingering shots and precision in color, or lack of color, pitch and tone, The Goldfinch under adaptation by Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and direction by John Crowley (Brooklyn) gently, if not flawlessly, stitches and unfurls a beautifully rendered movie. In scope, relevance and humor, it recalls The World According to Garp. In psychological tone, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, down to that picture’s water-themed plot points and contrast of cold mother figure with warm, sweater-wearing radical, comes to mind. Add intrigue ala The Da Vinci Code and The Bourne Identity, with each of those films having origins in books, and The Goldfinch is at once sharp, wondrous and original.
Nicole Kidman (The Human Stain, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) co-stars as a patroness of the arts with proximity to the title’s famous painting, which is believed to have been lost in a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Theo was visiting with his mother (perfectly cast and featured Hailey Wist). Amid works of art and an insistence on “keeping busy”, possibly so she won’t have to think about her Jekyll and Hyde husband (Boyd Gaines, always spot on) or her too-close tie to her first-born son, her family, the Barbours, comes out of a John Irving novel.
Enter Theo after the bombing of the Met, which flashes back in patches, enshrouding the shellshocked boy in nightmares. Every nook and cranny in this sprawling, involved and richly detailed movie comes with a certain purpose, from the sound of wailing sirens, his yellow bag, and knowing lines to references to Oz, Noah’s ark and a civics textbook. The Goldfinch is best viewed as a puzzle to solve and to save.
“You never know what’s going to decide your future”, Jeffrey Wright’s character counsels Theo, a lost white male innocent of the fact that it’s become a religious commandment to malign white males. Theo faintly evokes Earl Hamner’s New York-bound observer John-Boy (Richard Thomas) character from fiction, movies and TV. These are more reasons why dilettantes hold Goldfinch in contempt, especially given the plot’s splendid resolution. The honest and discerning audience is likely to see in this child character the curiosity and innocence that comes from taking ideas and life seriously. But this is a movie, which becomes obvious at times, such as in Sarah Paulson’s slightly overdone performance as Theo’s trashy stepmother in the picture’s most underdeveloped role.
Watch Luke Wilson (Legally Blonde, The Family Stone) as you’ve never seen him. Marvel at dangling threads being tied into a theme that man, emphatically against what today’s college professors insist, is not only not dust in the wind; he has a capacity for enlightenment and goodness, which comes from clearing away dust, including the residue of whatever havoc he’s wrought with his mistakes. Whatever flaws in its execution, this premise is profound.
The Goldfinch (as against Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) also properly depicts the scourge of drugs, cigarettes and alcohol as an increasingly common means of evading hardship. Crowley and Straughan employ Tartt’s wet/dry clues and allusions about lost kids, cleansing one’s soul and escaping the dead end. In an era of daily mass slaughterand post-September 11’s mass delusion and evasion, The Goldfinch portrays post-trauma better than any movie since Peter Weir’s Nineties gem Fearless. Given today’s drug-induced mindlessness and socialist-anarchist mania, it knits an alternative to American Pastoral’s hard take on making a proper society, family and life. Nodding to L. Frank Baum’s Oz, there’s a glowing metropolis, a wise man (who worships the manmade and wants to know: “Is [a claim] true?”) and an adorable dog.
A key character’s twist leads to resolving inner conflict, calling what constitutes fraud, originality and ownership into question. With an initiating event that echoes America’s near-daily mass death, the almost exalted way in which Crowley stirs dust particles from a passenger jet, swingset and terrorist attack aftermath into the film’s final frame makes The Goldfinch an elegant challenge to the blank, thick-headed nihilism of American Beauty, Tarantino movies and today’s dogma that one must be “woke”, jaded and smaller than life and certainly oneself, leaving zero emissions behind.
The Goldfinch exists to provoke thought. Send to hell what the dilettantes think (or say they think). Go see The Goldfinch and judge for yourself. But let for once a movie build you up.
This longtime admirer and journalist of Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Sordid Lives, Xanadu, Two of a Kind, Summer Nights) read her new memoir, published this week, with intense interest.
The co-written memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, which is both personal and light in substance and tone, contains many surprises, details and insights. The 70-year-old singer, whose career is marked by several movie performances, cultural milestones and an inspiring musical catalog and personal life, writes in the easy, natural and restrained but relaxed manner with which she performs. The woman knows her ability.
Olivia writes about every part of her life and career. Though the reader may be disappointed that she stresses people’s names at the expense of examining the songs, albums and songwriting for which she’s become a pop star, there’s also no chapter of her life untold. In this sense, Don’t Stop Believin’ is, like memoirs by Fred Astaire and Doris Day, a classic Hollywood memoir.
In short, it offers quality, light reading from a rare, telling perspective. Don’t Stop Believin’ is loaded with clinical and treatment details about Olivia’s cancer (she’s recently been diagnosed again, as I wrote about here) which alone makes the book worth reading. Olivia spares no detail yet she never lets herself, her values or her privacy go.
Among ONJ’s disclosures: she was injured in a car crash on LA’s 101 freeway, experienced debilitating pain during her three-year residency in Las Vegas, has a tattoo, failed music and math and became self-educated, was propositioned by a movie star during her first visit to America at LA’s Universal City Hilton and faced Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman during a contract dispute which she ultimately won — in court — gaining ownership of her master recordings.
Olivia traverses everything from her first marriage and divorce to miscarriage, pregnancy and parenting and neither goes deep nor shallow on any one topic. I think the Don’t Stop Believin’ reader will find himself wanting more or less of any given topic. The result, however, satisfies.
Olivia’s lifelong general advocacy for animals and the environment gets particular attention. Introspection comes in glimpses and fragments, with only an occasional indulgence from the disciplined performer. Whether recalling someone’s early career observation, which Olivia took as criticism, that she’s “ambitious” or her late sister or mother, the singer sails through the remembrances.
I adored my father and think more about him now than ever before, especially when I hear classical music, which was always playing loudly in our house. I close my eyes and see my father busily conducting each note as he smiled and drank his evening sherry.”
Some tales may surprise those who don’t know that Olivia Newton-John’s part of an extremely brave, intelligent family that, among other achievements, includes those who were awarded a Nobel prize for physics, helped to decode Nazi messages and invented the first portable iron lung.
Other tidbits include that Olivia sought emancipation from her mother after her parents’ divorce, recorded her first album while the Beatles were recording an album in the same studio and admires Andy Williams, Bob Hope and Dean Martin — with whom she made her first American appearance on television — all of whom she performed with during her youth. You’ll learn about Olivia spending the day with Dustin Hoffman (Kramer Vs. Kramer) during an audition for Tootsie and partying while vacationing with Sammy Davis Jr., Totie Fields, Carol Burnett, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Helen Reddy.
In a memorable encounter, Olivia remembers seeing Gloria Swanson at a waterfront hotel during a film festival, recalling that:
I spooned sugar into my [tea]cup at the exact moment, in the South of France, the iconic film star … swooped up those stairs. There she stood in full makeup with a bright silk scarf around her hair and wearing a long, flowing robe with bangles on her wrist. She was absolutely gorgeous, and looking right at me . . . and the tray filled with treats. “Darling,” Ms. Swanson said as she approached. “Don’t eat sugar. It’s poison.” It’s amazing that she was aware of the health risks of sugar back then, and I should have listened to her. Now, it’s forty years later and I’m finally on a no-sugar diet. I’m a slower learner!
Imagine watching Elvis Presley cover your song live in concert at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974 while sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice — and then meeting Doris Day backstage. Or suggesting that a new fellow Australian actor named Mel Gibson co-star in your movie Xanadu with Gene Kelly, who’d give you advice for living before rehearsing a dance with you and doing all of his own skating for the movie because he said he loved skating when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. In Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia puts the reader there.
As noted, Olivia’s admirers (and I am one of them) are likely to be disappointed with a lack of depth and detail. She calls almost everyone she mentions her friend, drawing few distinctions. There’s an abundance of material on her spiritual beliefs but nothing substantial about certain seminal albums such as Have You Never Been Mellow,Physical, Soul Kiss and The Rumour. The memoir lacks an index and discography. When she does write about her music, such as the Nashville-tinged Back with a Heart, the perfect “Right Here With You” or Grace and Gratitude, it’s with a chapter title or brief reference. There are exceptions, such as her thoughts on Grease and “I Honestly Love You”. Olivia proves to be a good observer and storyteller though there is more material about her travels and various plants, animals and exotic voyages — with snakes, rhinos and Magic the Chinese kitten — than about herself and those she values.
Few are as strong — a word Olivia says she likes — as Olivia Newton-John, which I think astute readers, admirers and cultural observers will come to realize, know and appreciate. Olivia captures the wider scope of her life.
“Time is a wonderful healer,” she notes on the topic of losing her sister Rona to brain cancer, “but grief is like an ocean. I found it comes in waves and there are times when you are lost at sea. …” The woman who recorded Liv On, a trio album on grief recovery, also recalls what a friend who lost a child once told her: “grief is just proof that you loved.”
So, read Don’t Stop Believin’ to discover why Olivia declines to use the word remission — why she admires the late motivational author Louise Hay — and why she enjoys vodka in good measure. Reading this memoir helps one to know that Olivia wants everyone interested in her blend of innocence, sweetness, lightness, strength and harmony to know that she honestly loves (especially her husband) and is loved and that you should strive to find the comfort from inside, too.
And ONJ’s sense of play — including having a whipped cream fight with composer Paul Williams in a private jet — comes through. As she describes her first encounter with the late Joan Rivers when the comedienne came to help during a grueling charity walk along the Great Wall of China:
You’ve got your heels on, Joan!” I said in an amazed voice. I’ll never forget her words to me. Joan said, “Olivia, when you invited me, I thought you said the Great Mall of China!” She followed this by walking up a few stairs, turning around and asking, “Where’s the ladies’ room?” Later she told Martha Stewart on her show, “There was so much wind on the wall, I could have skipped my last two face lifts.” She also remarked, “The wall was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It’s had more work done on it than I’ve had on my face.” God love her.”
For sharing some of what is personal and for 50 years of good humor, grace and performing arts, may God bless the thriving and triumphant Olivia Newton-John.