John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John reunite on This Christmas, a cheerful holiday charity album that benefits their respective causes. The pair, who famously co-starred in Grease (1978) and less famously in Two of a Kind (1983), sing all lead vocals in duets and trios. They clearly have a fabulous time.
They deserve it. Olivia’s been divorced, survived cancer and parented a troubled child, and John Travolta, who has suffered his own troubles, including the long-ago loss of his fiancee, Diana Hyland, recently lost a child. Here, they recapture their movie star magic with 13 polished Christmas tunes that, at their best, celebrate joy, love and good will. Though their voices are often overwhelmed by the slick production, they’re generally in fine form – Olivia’s voice and style change and improve with age – and Travolta, not a professional singer like his mate, makes out with a few standout moments. He taps his “Greased Lightning” voice and imitates Elvis on “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” featuring Kenny G on tenor saxophone.
Olivia shines everywhere, especially on “Silent Night”, her understated version with Travolta of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and a playful version of “The Christmas Song” in which she and Travolta exchange a greedy, gift grabbing rapport at the end. The 64-year-old British native, who came to America from Australia where she was raised, also does a fitting mashup in the final track, “Auld Lang Syne/Christmastime is Here”, with Travolta urging us toward Vince Guaraldi’s peaceful Charlie Brown Christmas theme while Olivia bids the past adieu. Their best song is a trio with folk singer James Taylor, “Deck the Halls”, which feels like three friends caroling on Christmas Eve. Other trio tunes, such “Winter Wonderland” with Tony Bennett and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with Barbra Streisand, are too obviously recorded separately. On “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, a cougarish Olivia takes the traditionally male role to 58-year-old Travolta’s hard-to-get guy and it’s instantly charming. Cliff Richard, who paired with Olivia in 1980 for “Suddenly” from Xanadu, joins the two stars on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, which opens with an introduction by Travolta that seems touching given how difficult the holidays must be for his family. The only new tune, the buoyant “I Think You Might Like It”, puts them in an enjoyable follow-up to their smash hit Grease single, “You’re the One That I Want” and is also written by that song’s writer, longtime ONJ collaborator and songwriter John Farrar.
Olivia, who is doing quirky film roles – a butch barfly in Sordid Lives, a hippie mother in Score: A Hockey Musical, and a politician’s cocaine-sniffing wife in A Few Best Men – and continues to tour, remains delightful in everything she does and her vocal interpretations of these classic lyrics are a treat. Travolta, too, whose career spans decades from playing a dumb hunk in ABC’s Welcome Back, Kotter to doing drag as an overweight mother in the musical Hairspray, has a decent voice on This Christmas. As a duo, these 70s/80s superstars offer, like those 50s-/60s superstars Rock Hudson and Doris Day before them, good, cheesy all-American fun with a sexy wink and nod, in time for the holidays when we could use a burst of good cheer. At any age, whatever their private lives, they still go together.