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.
It'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.
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?