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Personal Canon #99: XANADU (1980)

From now until the end of August we'll be celebrating Gene Kelly for his Centennial (August 23rd to be exact) so let's revisit Xanadu, which opened 32 years ago last night! It's a member of my Personal Canon... also known as "The movies I think about when I think about the movies"

"A Movie That Nobody Dares To Love"

A Broadway version of this 1980 classic opened on Broadway a few years back marking yet another jokey acknowledgement of Xanadu's kitsch value. It was high timeto rediscover the film in all of its enduring time-capsule glory. For Xanadu, you see, is not the tongue-in-cheek comedy that it was reworked as. It's a completely sincere endeavor and, I'd argue, endearingly so. It's not one of those films that are so intentionally bad that it's subversively excellent (see: Showgirls). No, Xanadu is the real deal: a straight-faced musical. It just had the terrible misfortune to celebrate a number of things that would be out of style almost immediately thereafter: roller rinks, disco, legwarmers, greek mythology, album covers … and Olivia Newton-John.

The album art within "Xanadu" though not the movie's soundtrack album coverIt's easy to dismiss Xanadu for the very things it shamelessly loves but it's a shame to dismiss the shameless if they're also compulsively watchable. What other movie gives you a glimpse into the lost profession of album cover illustration? None that I know of. In what other movie will you see Greek muses come to life from a painting on a brick wall? Even Clash of the Titans didn't have that. What other movie has the wacky chutzpah to give you a pop star as A list as Olivia Newton-John (she is strangely disregarded now but don't be fooled: she was an enormous star with dozens of hit songs) and put her on rollerskates and in only one outfit for almost an entire film?


Xanadu, like many great musicals, tells a rather silly story. The tale it spins is of a Greek muse with an Australian accent named Kira (Olivia) who inspires a young artist (Michael Beck, the whiniest male lead since Luke Skywalker complained about those power converters at the Toschi Station) to open a nightclub with an retired musician (Gene Kelly). This 1980 musical had the nerve to be Olivia Newton-John's follow up to the monster success of Grease and its subsequent box office failure insured that it wouldn't be spoken of nicely. And it is an easy target, don't get me wrong: what with the rollerskating, the new wave hairdos, and the visual tourettes (more on that in a minute).

Xanadu does have a terrible screenplay, but screenplays aren't everything. There've been plenty of movies with dialogue as obvious, boneheaded, and subtext-free but if they're huge successes (like say 300 or Titanic) they're generally forgiven for their unease with the spoken word. Though I love literate and complex dialogue as much as anybody, certain movies can succeed without them --especially those from genres that thrive on movement like the action film or, you guessed it, the musical.

Keep me suspended in time with you.... ♫

And in the area of music and musical numbers, Xanadu is pure heaven --or at least a slice of Mount Olympus if you wanna get picky. Maybe it's my childhood love for Olivia Newton-John who sings like an angel, but during "Suspended in Time", when she's all outlined in neon, I always melt --she's singing to me! That gorgeous ballad wasn't even a single. Her other numbers "Magic", "Suddenly", and "Xanadu" were all big hits. Xanadu as a movie was "a place where nobody dared to go" but "Xanadu" the soundtrack? People went there in droves. Beyond Olivia there's also the hooky greatness of Electric Light Orchestra's work. "I'm Alive", the first dance number for the Greek muses, is a superb kickoff to the fun. (80s fanatics will note the presence of Sandahl Bergman, Conan the Barbarian's girlfriend and All That Jazz's featured "Air Erotica" dancer as one of Kira's sisters

One of the best things about the movie is its kooky abandon and unembarassed chutzpah. There are times during its 93 minutes, especially during the grand finale, when you become convinced that no idea was ever abandoned during production. Olivia transformed into a cartoon fish? Why not! Gene Kelly emerging from between a hideous cardboard cut-out of women's legs during a makeover sequence? Of course! Tight rope walkers performing just inches off the the floor at a roller rink? Yes! Mount Olympus respresented by a neon grid like something out of Tron? Absolutely!

Robert Greenwald, who directed this infamous flop, has since made a name for himself doing politically-minded documentaries like Outfoxed: Rupert Mudoch's War on Journalism and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices but I wish he'd do something as crazy as a mythological roller disco musical again, don't you? One can't say that his direction was ever unenthusiastic. Xanadu has some of Moulin Rouge!'s attention deficit disorder without any of its aesthetic control or taste level. Yet even when Xanadu doesn't know what the hell its doing, it never stops to doubt itself. Xanadu believes in itself and just goes for it. Completely sincere and often gobsmackingly bizarre -- that's a place few movies dare to go.



  • What's your favorite song in Xanadu?
  • Is it your guilty pleasure or just a pleasure? 
  • Have you ever worn leg warmers or wished that roller rink actually existed?


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Reader Comments (13)

'Xanadu' the song is so peerlessly great, such unashamed catchy disco-pop, that all my feelings about 'Xanadu' the film are sort of filtered backwards through it. How can it be bad when it fills me with such joy? One of those movies that I would watch with friends as a 'so-bad-it's-good' extravaganza, only to secretly enjoy it (songs especially) with a kind of pre-critical happiness all the way through.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaika

- Xanadu!
- All pleasure. No shame!
- Of course (both)

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The Xanadu soundtrack is Grade A; it's so hard to choose a favorite song, but...I'd have to say the title track sequence just can't be ignored (Dan).

And please, if this pleasure's guilty, then take me to jail. (I'll be seeing ONJ perform this weekend at Market Days in Chicago and can. Not. Wait!)

P.S. Yes and YES!

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

thanks for remembering a very bad, but i ablsolutely loved it movie. i actualy heard "magic" on a 80s flashback hour while traveling today. it gave me such a sense of joy. it reminded me of my high school days where olivia rulled. she was real tallent and class, something these no tallent, expose yourself, cant sing without autotune hacks of today should learn from.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterwkm

Xanadu foreshadows the decade of its release prophetically. I bet the most avid film fan can't pinpoint another example of a movie where its release year ends in a zero or one that does the same.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter4rtful

I love "Xanadu" because it's a classic example of what-where-they -thinking- school of film making.
Yes with all those bizarre throw in everything but the kitchen sink production numbers. But there are moments in the film that work- the opening sequence is still cool and the Gene- Olivia duet is very nice too. Universal studios should built a "Xanadu" theme ride.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I've never loved or even particularly liked the movie. Bits and pieces are okay but Kelly especially gets on my nerves, great dancer though he may be. But I love the music. Magic would be my favorite from the score.

August 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I cannot deny the faults of the film, but it's so sincere, so fun, and has such a great soundtrack, that there is no way I would ever call it a "bad movie" or a "guilty pleasure". It's my second favorite movie of all time, right below Nashville. That finale kills me every time. Goosebumps, tears, the works.

My first time seeing it was in class, with a professor who liked to push buttons and re-consider films many would dismiss. I and a handful of others were its sole defenders. One classmate used "Suspended in Time" as an example of the poor directing: "It's just one shot, it's just her, there's no imagination." And I fired back with, "It's Olivia Newton-John, a great director knows that's all you need." I even started a campaign to have "Xanadu" as our graduation song, to play in place of "Pomp and Circumstance". It was eventually "Sweet Disposition", but I got 1/5 of the class to support me.

God, I love Xanadu.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWalter L. Hollmann

no leg warmers, but i did buy some rollerskates...

i vividly recall sitting in the theatre and feeling my onj love wither a little while watching this debacle. as much as i love her, acting is not one of her talents. i don't find the film any kind of pleasure, but the soundtrack remains on high rotation all these years later (title track for the win)

the stage show, which pointed out the many many idiotic elements of the film, was a total joy

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpar3182

"Completely sincere and often gobsmackingly bizarre" is my favorite film genre. My favorite song from this film is prob. "Magic" with the title song running a close second.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

The movie was on FLIX a few weeks ago, and I just decided I had to have the CD. About 9 bucks on Amazon, and it's been in the car CD system ever since. Gene Kelly elevates it a bit, but it is gonzo bizarre in some parts. Who would have thought swing and hard rock would go together so well? "Suspended in Time" is my favorite ONJ, while "All Over the World" the ELO song played during the, er, fashion montage, is my other favorite.

August 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Who the hell is your target readership that you feel you have to explain that Olivia Newton-John was once and is still considered one of the biggest singers in pop music? Even most teenagers have seen Grease, and she hasn't exactly disappeared. She was on Oprah's final season visit to Australia with all the other A-listers like Kidman and Hugh Jackman You write about ONJ as if she were her fellow Aussie Samantha Sang. Now THERE's someone disregarded who disappeared, despite having sold one of the few and best-known "disco ballads" of all time, "Emotion", penned by Barry Gibb. (Do we need to explain the Bee Gees and who he is too??) I think anyone with a basic understanding of pop music history should know her just as they should know earlier artists like Dusty Springfield or The Carpenters.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrawny71

MANY classic films that are now considered classics (for various reasons) flopped when they first came out. Fantasia, The Big Lebowski, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the above-mentioned TRON, It's a Wonderful Life, etc., etc. And I would rather watch Xanadu any day then listen to Jimmy Stewarts annoyingly earnest line delivery in IaWL. It's time to stopped dwelling on Xanadu's poor performance and give it the flawed but nonetheless classic status it deserves. (If you really want to see an awful production from 1980, check out "The Apple"--mercifully forgotten.) And on what planet is ONJ "disregarded? In Australia, she has royalty status like Barbra Streisand has in the U.S., or Anne Murray has in Canada. But unlike Murray, she has certainly kept her presence in the U.S. as well. She is a household name, and always will be.

October 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBarHeart
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