Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You was as awkward as its title, and as bald a vanity project as they come. Sam Brooks reviews the Delta Goodrem-led mini-series.
On paper, Delta Goodrem is a perfect fit for an Olivia Newton-John biopic. Both are surprisingly enduring Australian popstars, both have distinctive and versatile pop voices, and they’re both pretty blondes. However, in practice, or at least the particular practice decided upon by Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted to You (which played over the last two nights on Three), Goodrem could not be further from the iconic Australian star of stage-and-Grease.
The biopic displays none of Olivia Newton-John’s lackadaisical charm, and none of the electricity that she brought to both Grease and Xanadu. There’s also none of Olivia Newton-John’s voice, given that Goodrem re-recorded all the songs, and her voice has a reediness in the upper register that Olivia Newton-John has never had. It’s not that her voice is any worse than Newton-John’s, it’s just very much… Delta Goodrem’s voice. (There’s a good re-recording of ‘Physical’ though, and a hilariously bad re-creation of the video.)
In fairness to Goodrem, one of the most likeable, charismatic and kooky popstars to come out of our neighbouring continent, not even an experienced and highly capable actress could come out of this Wikipedia-in-motion endeavour looking good. Even our own valiant Robyn Malcolm, saddled with an accent that seems to be aiming for Germany but ends up somewhere near Mercury, doesn’t emerge unscathed.
That’s because it’s a four-hour slog of a mini-series (or two part telefilm) with no sense of humanity whatsoever, let alone the actual human being who it is named after.
We’ve seen this kind of schlock before. Someone who wants to make a film comes across a famous person, and decides to make their life into a film. That life does not fit into the two-to-four hour length of a film (or in this case, a mini-series). This is because lives are very long, and the lives of famous people tend to be filled with events that define their fame. Rather than have a point of view on that famous person, or the life they lead – something that might provide a theme or narrative structure – they decide to cram it all in and hope for the best. These projects exist to give famous people awards, existing like a bizarre kind of ouroboros that makes the famous more famous, and pleases nobody else outside of awards voters.
Olivia Newton-John has had an interesting life – the kind of interesting life that lends itself to a memoir more than it does to a film, especially a film where the dialogue seems to come almost entirely from old press clippings. Sample lines of dialogue include: “We have a top twenty-five single!” “Our single just went gold!” “Do you want to come and meet Jack Nicholson?”. We’re working on that level here.
This structure-less approach creates two problems in Hopelessly Devoted to You. One, Olivia is never anything more than a narrative device, one who has Events™ and Things™ happen to her; she’s never a person. She never has conversations, she never hangs out with her friends – she talks about what is coming next in her career and ticking off boxes on a screenwriter’s list of things he has to cover. It’d be hard for any actor to bring Olivia Newton-John to life when this is all they’ve got, but Goodrem seems especially adrift – especially when surrounded by seemingly dozens of much louder actors in cartoonishly written bit parts. (George Xanthis fares a bit better as John Travolta, purely by not even attempting an impression, and letting his eyebrows and a wig do the work for him.)
The other problem this creates is that the narrative has a momentum-killing flatness to it; everything is given the same weight. The shooting of unfortunate cultural phenomenon Grease is the climax of the first half of the mini-series, but is treated with as much importance as Olivia’s back-and-forth about her representation. Have you been interested in anybody’s manager before? No? Then you’ll continue not to be interested about somebody’s representation here! There’s no sense of arc or structure; every scene feels like another box ticked off.
This could all be rectified if there was some style to the thing – or even an attempt at camp, so it could lean further into the badness. But like most biopics of this ilk, there is no style. Everything is shot and edited for maximum efficiency and minimum effect: get the information out, make sure the audience understands it, move onto the next scene. The sell of this whole thing is famous popstar Delta Goodrem playing more famous icon Olivia Newton-John; anything beyond that initial hook is done with the bare minimum in mind. The recreations feel just like that – hollow recreations, with none of the fun or any of the soul that Olivia Newton-John brought to her films, her songs or her videos.
If you close your eyes and watch the clip above, you can feel something. Goodrem is a great singer, and she’s proven herself a capable interpreter of pop classics. But if you open your eyes and actually watch it – which you’re expected to do, because television is a visual medium – it’s empty. You’ve got Delta Goodrem in heavy makeup and wig dressed up as Olivia Newton-John in heavy makeup and wig dressed up as Sandy. You’ve got the change from Delta’s live singing to the heavily produced studio vocal (and absolutely fault-full lip-sync) that pulls you out of it, as well as the sudden and brief shift to a music video.
Olivia Newton-John: Hopelessly Devoted To You is a sodden shrug of a series, deserving of neither the namesake before the colon or the one after it. It sits on the fence of gleefully saying, “This is what you want!” and sadly sighing, “Is this what you want?” The mini-series doesn’t care enough to put effort into even the things that should be its most exciting segments – the actual songs that made Olivia Newton-John – so imagine how bad it is when it’s just actors talking.
How bad is it? There’s a scene where Olivia’s daughter makes her promise not to get cancer – a disease which Olivia Newton-John famously had and recovered from. Not only is this shoddy writing, it’s over-the-line offensive. You know in a period film where someone says, “Oh that [famous innovation] will never take off?” It’s that, except worse, because it uses a real life person’s trauma for dramatic effect, and twists it in the most baldly manipulative way that it possibly can, by putting it in the mouth of a child. It treats a real person’s cancer like a Chekhov’s gun, like another box not just to be ticked off, but to be ticked and re-ticked and circled until the audience really gets that our protagonist has The Cancer™ and it’s Very Bad Indeed.
Even worse is the moment when Olivia’s husband says, “Look at you. You even manage to do cancer better than anybody else.” It’s inconceivable that a human being would say this to another human being, let alone the woman he was in love with. It’s maybe even more inconceivable that another human being would write this, put it into the mouth of an actor playing a real life person, allow that actor to be filmed saying it (potentially multiple times for coverage) and hope that it comes off as authentic and not just hugely misguided, offensive and downright misrepresentative of not just actual events but actual human existence.
Despite that inconceivability, all those things sadly happened, and Hopelessly Devoted To You exists. The biopic genre is full of bad moments, but this iteration manages to be equally lazy and offensive, so much so that it’s almost laudable. Usually it takes effort to be this bad. To reach it by simple incompetence is a notable achievement, for all the wrong reasons.
If you love Olivia Newton-John, go watch Grease or Xanadu. If you love Delta Goodrem, watch The Voice, some clips of her in Cats or, if you really want to see her acting, dig up some 15 year old episodes of Neighbours where she played Nina. If you love them both, there’s a whole covers album you can listen to! It’s a specific itch to scratch, but I’m not gonna judge you for itching it.
If you love either of these women, the defiled medium of music, or the even more defiled medium of TV, then don’t watch this. There’s a limited amount of time we all have on this earth, and I spent four hours of mine watching this so you never have to.
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