A computer should come out and take a bow at the conclusion of Olivia Newton-John's ABC special "Let's Get Physical," at 10 tonight on Channel 7. The hour is a shopping spree of electronic effects, an orgy for technophiles; it might have been called "Let's Get Digital." It also represents a change of image for the Australian-born pop singer, who's apparently decided to shed her old cuteness for a naughtier approach.
The program is, in fact, significant: It's a new kind of crossover production, essentially an adaptation of a forthcoming video disc comprising slightly to extremely bizarre production numbers. Newton-John bounces from one to the other with little of the usual hostess chitchat. The program makes it clear how dead the old variety format is (even "Saturday Night Live" is dead -- too linear), though not everyone will be cheered by what has come along to replace it.
Essentially this is a glitz fit, a tour of surfaces -- never involving but never exactly boring either -- and, at times, a fetching phantasmagoria, largely because Newton-John makes an appealingly flirtatious sprite from the opening moment when, bare-legged, she washes ashore on a wave of the future. But my, she has gotten earthy; in a club setting, she sings, "Come on, baby, make a move on me . . . I can't wait, I can't wait."
In the first number, she throws a lover into a dungeon filled with groping hands. And in the second, the title tune (a segment already seen on some other programs), she rallies a nest of Fat Freddies into fitness only to find that, when transformed into glorious specimens, they waltz off to the showers with one another. Newton-John's new willingness, which often verges on outright eagerness, is apparently to be thwarted now and then by signs of the times.
The imagery has a spacey L.A. kinkiness about it, which may explain the late hour for the program in tonight's prime-time layout.
"This is the '80s, and times change, and people have to change right along with them," lectures the star, on the beach, near the show's beginning. And then, trailing right into loopy anticlimax: "We have to learn to look at old things in a new way. Take sand, for instance."
Old comparisons about style and content don't really apply to efforts like this, in which the style is the content is the style. It's a new form: video blanc, Valiumized white noise. Record albums will be replaced by video discs, and cynics may say that this will give people with even less talent than Newton-John the chance to become pop stars, but that's a kind of democratization, isn't it? Even if it isn't, there's not much point in fighting it.