These days, it’s hard to imagine a karaoke singalong without someone mangling Danny and Sandy’s duet as they hit that insufferable note at the end of their Grease hit Summer Nights.

But that note was a cultural phenomenon, as was the entire Grease franchise – and what would we have done without Grease? Grease is the word.

The sad news of Olivia Newton-John’s death from breast cancer at 73 earlier this week was greeted with condolences and fond remembrances of her singing, her charity work, but mostly of that mesmerising role.

As much as the songs and the punchy ensemble of actors making up the classmates of the fictional Rydell High, it was Olivia’s enchanting performance as the film’s ingénue that made Grease special. It was her US film debut, and for many Australians her Aussie twang cutting through the surrounding American accents was a curious point of national pride.

I think I was maybe eight or 10 when I first saw Grease, and for the most part, it went way over my head. But, the music is what struck me the most.

Because, at its crux, it is a musical.

The narrative power of Grease is through its depiction of young relationships, and expertly lends itself to the coming-of-age genre,  but the music unites it.

The songs themselves are cheesy but charismatic and Olivia enigmatically magnetic.

Olivia was many things to her fans, whether it be Sandy, a Grammy Award-winning musician, or as an advocate for breast cancer research.

Grease was just the catalyst for her stardom. In 1974, Olivia competed in Eurovision, representing her birth nation the UK where she sang Long Live Love.

ABBA won that year with Waterloo, kicking off their stardom, as Olivia finished fourth. But her music career was far from over. She was one of the most popular artists of the ’70s, and the ’80s and was light-footed, but dedicated in her approach to music.

She began as a country artist, with her hit songs Banks of the Ohio in 1971 and Let Me Be There in 1973 making her a star in the US. She slowly dipped her feet into the waters of pop music with her release Have You Never Been Mellow two years later in 1975.

Her rising popularity saw her cast in the film version of the successful Broadway musical Grease in 1978. Although, she wasn’t always going to play Sandy! It was John Travolta who talked her into it. She confessed in her 2018 memoir Don’t Stop Believin’ that she was hesitant to play Sandy because of her age (28 playing a 17-year-old), but then she met John.

She wrote:“That day, he greeted me with a big hug like we were already lifelong friends. How could you say no to John Travolta?”

And they became lifelong friends. In 2019 they donned their Grease costumes for one last time for a Q&A session at the Coral Sky Amphitheatre. Although, they looked a little different than back in ’78 their energy together was always electrifying, so to say.

And let’s not forget about the notorious finale of Grease. Olivia had to be physically sewn into those black leather pants!

You’re the One that I Want was released as the second single from the film’s soundtrack and remains one of the best-selling singles in history to date. – spending nine weeks atop the Australian charts and another six at no.2.

Following the success of Grease, Olivia moved on with her music, which became more self-consciously provocative.  She won a Grammy for Music Video of The Year for her 1982 hit Physical, which spent 10 weeks at the top of the US Billboard charts and made her the biggest star in the world at the time.

She amassed five No.1 hits on the Billboard Hottest 100, and became the second female solo artist to land back-to-back No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200.

In her later life, Olivia spent three decades battling breast cancer. When she was first diagnosed in 1992, she established the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne.

For 30 years, Olivia shared her journey with breast cancer, channelling her energy into healing those also affected by the disease. Her donations and support allowed pioneering research into breast cancer through the Olivia Newton-John Fund. In lieu of flowers following her passing, her family asked for donations to the ONJ fund.

While she might not be with us in the physical anymore, Olivia definitely left the world with a little more love.

Main image publicity still from Grease.