Oct 10, 2016
Xanadu (1980) (part 1 of 7)
The Cast of Characters:
Kira (Olivia Newton-John). A muse. Supposedly Terpsichore, the muse of dance and dramatic chorus. But she doesn’t dance so much as skip about, and as for dramatic chorus… Well, there’s hardly any drama in this movie. But boy, can she sing. And sing. And sing.
Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly). A clarinet player. Can out-dance and out-act most of the main cast, yet somehow spends the entire movie getting dissed by everyone instead.
Sonny Malone (Michael Beck). An artist. Spends half of the movie whining, and the other half obsessing over a woman who technically doesn’t exist. Beck doesn’t receive top billing, despite being the main character and having the most screen time. Which should tell you something right there.
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When I was a kid, I adored Xanadu. It had funky graphics, a great soundtrack, and lots of cool skating that we kiddies back in 1980 endeavored to emulate. I spent weeks in the driveway of our house, skating round and round in my frilliest of dresses like I was Olivia Newton-John—which was quite a stretch for a little black girl. Regardless, I knew all the lines by heart. I knew every choreographed move by heart. I knew it all.
At least twenty years went by before I saw Xanadu again. When I saw it came out on DVD, I quickly grabbed it. As I started watching it again, I realized that there was much about Xanadu that I didn’t know or care about at the time. For instance, I never knew that Danny Maguire was played by the great Gene Kelly. I didn’t know that half of the soundtrack was done by the Electric Light Orchestra.
And I certainly did not know that, in reality, the movie sucked.
It’s not surprising, considering Xanadu‘s origins. In 1979, producers Lawrence Gordon and Joel Silver came up with the idea of a roller-disco movie. (Yes, that Joel Silver, making him the Agony Booth’s latest Repeat Offender.) They had already hired Olivia Newton-John to play the lead. She had just come off the huge success of Grease, and this would be the first movie where she’d receive top billing. Amnesia may have also played a part in signing her on—everyone had conveniently forgotten that, ten years earlier, she had starred in the sci-fi musical Toomorrow (sic), made by the same people who put together the Monkees. Toomorrow sunk into oblivion without a trace (a brief write-up can be found in this book, if you “Search Inside” for “Toomorrow”). But hey, Xanadu would be different. It wouldn’t be a crappy sci-fi musical. It would be a crappy fantasy musical! Totally not the same thing!
The producers somehow managed to convince Gene Kelly to sign on. (Apparently, the main reason Kelly agreed to appear is because the movie shoot was only a short distance away from his Beverly Hills home.) There were also some concerns about having an entire soundtrack full of nothing but Olivia Newton-John material, so they brought in Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra to do half the songs. Finally, they hired Robert Greenwald to direct. Greenwald did some TV movies and theater productions prior to this, but Xanadu would be his first feature film. (In recent years, Greenwald has turned his attention to making somewhat more controversial films.)
As production started, however, the producers learned that two other movies were coming out that year that also had roller skating as their theme: Roller Boogie and Skatetown, USA. The producers then decided to revise the original story to have more of a romantic element. Easy enough for them to do, considering the script wasn’t even finished yet. That’s right, they started filming Xanadu without a completed script. Always a good sign.
The changes meant Olivia Newton-John now needed a love interest (because having her hook up with Gene Kelly would have increased the “ick” factor exponentially). So the producers brought in Michael Beck, who’d starred in their last movie, The Warriors. Actually, he probably got the part because his hair fit perfectly with their vision of a “romantic fantasy lead”.
It all went downhill from there. So many writers put their fingers in and out of the script that the plot got edited out of existence. Joel Silver got fired for overspending, then somehow managed to weasel back onto the project. Greenwald started ramping up the special effects, wanting to take the movie from a mere “romantic fantasy” to an “art deco musical fantasy”. Then Universal Studios moved up the release of the movie, from Christmas 1980 to that summer, so Greenwald and the producers had to settle for just a plain old “musical fantasy”. What resulted from all the chaos was a big mess of a movie, but hey, at least it sounds good if you close your eyes. And stuff your ears during the speaking parts.
Unsurprisingly, Xanadu bombed at the box office (sadly, one critic took my nutshell quote idea long ago: “In a word, Xana-don’t”). The Razzies came into existence that same year, and Greenwald won the first ever Worst Director Award, while Beck and Newton-John received nominations for Worst Actor and Actress, respectively. Yet, somehow, instead of disappearing like Newton-John’s first musical, Xanadu stubbornly stayed on the cult fringe, like a sore tooth lingering in the back of a wino’s mouth.
I don’t know if it’s because of the music, or the LSD-meets-disco visuals, or the fact that the movie is so bad it’s good, or the strange infatuation a lot of people have with Olivia Newton-John, but it looks like Xanadu is in no danger of being forgotten any time soon. So we may as well start exploring it in all its roller disco musical glory.
The movie opens with a ’40s-era airplane circling around a revolving earth with the Universal logo, while big band swing music is heard. The music switches to smoother jazz, and a larger plane with propellers circles the globe. Another revolution, and the plane is now a Concorde, and Xanadu‘s theme song plays, sounding more like elevator music gone vaguely disco. One more turn, and a flying saucer, complete with beeps [?], circles the earth. So according to this, the next evolutionary step in commercial flight will be flying saucers? Okay, then.
After the spaceship, a glowing orange ball of light zooms around the earth a couple of times before flying into the camera and poofing into the Xanadu title, spelled out in spiffy neon. Might as well get used to these neon effects, by the way. We’ll be seeing plenty of them over the next hour and a half.
The next scene opens on a man playing clarinet on the beach, and watching the sun rise. It’s a nice, soothing opening, once you get over the sun moving faster than what would usually be considered normal. Also, they based this movie in Los Angeles, which means the man is supposed to be looking out over the Pacific Ocean, so the sun should be setting, not rising. Man, we’re not even thirty seconds in, and already the movie is screwing with us.
Cut to Our Supposed Hero, Sonny. The camera focuses on his brushes in the foreground, showing us in no uncertain terms that he is an “artist”. Sonny is played by Michael Beck, who as I mentioned before, played the leader of a gang in The Warriors. And in the opening credits, his name appeared beneath the words “Also Starring”. Not a good sign for someone who’s supposed to be the main character.
Sonny sketches, switching from pencil to paint to chalk, then suddenly rips up several of his drawings like a toddler with ADD. He grumbles, “Aw, what the hell. Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway!” He tosses the torn up shreds out of a window (because he’s apparently unaware of this new invention called “a trash can”). And here’s our first taste of the movie’s special effects wizardry, because the shreds of paper suddenly become cartoon bits of paper, dancing playfully over rooftops with carefree abandon, before tesseracting abruptly into an alley.
At the end of the alley is a mural consisting of nine life-sized women, all standing in various poses. Also in the painting is what looks like an unfinished Greek temple, traced with neon lighting, like the Disco Parthenon. Why this mural is in an abandoned alley, where it seems only homeless people would actually see it, is never explained, but it sure looks trippy. Not to mention disturbing.
The papers flutter down, and a blue neon aura appears around one of the women. She’s real now, and she shows it by whipping her hair around in slow motion. Oh yeah, Sunsilk shampoo rocks, baby! This triggers the first musical contribution from ELO, “I’m Alive”. The woman steps out of the mural, while another woman glows to life. The first woman grabs the second woman’s arm, who looks at her with cheerful surprise, and they start to dance because, hey, they’re alive!
These women are the Nine Muses of Greek mythology, though we don’t really learn that until far, far later in the movie. It’s never explained why they were stuck in a painting in the first place, or why they’re coming to life at this particular moment, though we can safely assume it’s because of the ripped up pieces of Sonny’s artwork. Or maybe it’s because of the inspirational power of Jeff Lynne’s vocals. Who can say for sure?
They’re all dressed in flowing peasant dresses, though they also have weird accessories, like thick legwarmers, and at least one woman is wearing pantaloons [?]. But still, it’s kind of fun to watch the women twirl around like five year old girls in pretty-pretty dresses. There’s even a black woman with her hair in a weird, knoblike protrusion on her head. Don’t know. Don’t wanna know.
Eventually, in the middle of all this dancing, we come to the only woman painted in full detail. This, of course, is Kira, played by Olivia Newton-John. She’s painted with this haughty glare that seems to say, “How dare everyone else dance out of the painting before me? I’m the one with top billing!” She glows and comes to life, and the first thing she does is cover her eyes with her hands. Uh, is this supposed to be some sort of artistic dance move? Or do you know something we don’t know, Kira?
Cut to an Asian woman—the Greeks were a diverse bunch, weren’t they?—fluttering her hands in the air. Kira peers from behind her fingers, watching all the others twist and cartwheel. Finally, she does a dance move which consists of… stretching her arms out. She then points to the women, who spin, dance, and twirl. And then she proceeds to… spin, dance and twirl.
And that’s it, really. For a woman who’s supposed to be the muse of dance and dramatic chorus, Kira doesn’t really do a whole lot. She mostly skips around, and smiles a lot (I seem to recall her doing that a lot in Grease, too). There are half-hearted attempts by the women to perform choreographed dance moves together, but they mainly do their own thing as they spin, dance, and er… twirl. And so what? It’s still fun to watch. It’s better than those wives wrestling in the dirt in translucent gowns and granny panties.
The music crescendos with Kira initiating a “snap-the-whip” maneuver that has all the women running in a circle. Then, cut to an empty street (in L.A., everyone gets to sleep in ’til noon). Two of the women, sans their neon auras, are running away from the camera. As they run, they suddenly glow really, really bright and whooosh!! They become fast-moving balls of light. Gotta hand it to those muses. They know how to make an entrance and an exit. Never mind why they’re turning into balls of light; it just looks cool.
One woman lights up the Hollywood sign with her aura. Two other women (one’s the knob-headed black woman) run towards each other on a beach, and whooosh!! They fly right into the camera. A woman goes whooosh!! on an empty highway—lots of those in L.A., too, I’m told—as clouds speed overhead in time-lapse footage. And in a very cool scene (IMHO), a woman dances up a spiral staircase before whooosh!!-ing away as a red ball of light. Sigh. To think that if Greenwald had just kept this part and toned down rest of the garish special effects, the movie might have stayed within budget and not have turned into the painful-to-watch debacle it becomes later.
The nine-multicolored Tron cars—er, I mean, balls of light—er, I mean, muses, shoot up into a roiling sky. One orange ball of light falls back down to earth, zipping through palm trees and eventually resolving into a roller skating Kira, with a big grin on her face, and still trailing bits of orange light.
Cut to Sonny, strolling around near the beach. He stops to stare out at the ocean, and Newton-John skates up to him from behind. As he turns, she kisses him on the lips, then streaks off. Now, if a stranger kissed me on the lips and ran off like that, I would be pretty freaked out. But all Sonny does is lean back with a smug, satisfied smile, like all he needs right now is a cigarette. Eww. I feel so unclean all of a sudden.