Xanadu (1980)

Although it’s often compared with Down to Earth, the 1947 musical about a meddling muse starring Rita Hayworth, Xanadu exists firmly in it’s own girly space-time continuum. An era of blousy peasant skirts slit to the waist, rollerskates, leg warmers, and hair ribbons. It marks the death of New York disco, the end of Studio 54 decadence, and harkens the dawn of Southern California, neon clothes, and workout tapes.

Xanadu is as wholesome as breakfast cereal, and had the marketing campaign to match! MCA Records president Bob Singer boasted that by the time Xanadu came out, everyone in America would have heard the name six to eight times. It featured the corn-pop goodness of Olivia Newton-John — a triple threat who could act dance and sing — sprinkled with the high-fructose soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra. The film was studded with references to art and literature (the title is lifted from the opium-hazed poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge), revived the three-part harmony of the Andrews Sisters, paid homage to golden age musicals by Comden and Green, and almost saved a streamline art deco landmark, the Pan Pacific Auditorium. After the success of Saturday Night Fever and Grease, Hollywood musicals seemed to be on the verge of a new platinum age. Gene Kelly was called out of retirement to bless the adventure. It couldn’t fail.

Perhaps it was overconfidence in Olivia Newton-John as a star, or the studios’ greedy attempt to score so many marketing trends at once. Maybe it was the wooden acting of Michael Beck who replaced heartthrob Andy Gibb as Sonny. More likely it was the ham-fisted movie directorial debut of Robert Greenwald who seems to have never seen a golden age musical, or the embarrassing choreography by Kenny Ortega who’d done stage shows for Kiss and Cher, or the often blurry photography that was being covered with Richard Greenburg’s sparkles and neon lines — originally hired just for the opening titles but eventually contributing over 80 optical effects, until the production ran out of money…. The Xanadu set alone cost an estimated $1,000,000, with 237 dancers in the finale!

Universal’s marketing campaign backfired, resulting in not one but two roller-boogie movies beating Xanadu to the theaters, and forcing the script to be rewritten after shooting began. By 1980, critics were through with disco, had seen enough rollerskating movies, and (perhaps unfairly) were ready to unanimously crucify Xanadu as a ridiculous, over-produced flop.

The film opens with an artist in crisis: Sonny a frustrated painter (Michael Beck) is ready to give up his dream. He tears up an unfinished sketch and scatters the pieces into the wind. They flutter down in front of a neon-colored mural of the nine muses who come to life and dance around aimlessly like Solid Gold dancers to the song I’m Alive by ELO. The sisters beam up to heaven in rainbow steaks, but one comes back as Kira (Olivia Newton-John). Her earthly task is to unite Sonny with Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) a charming former bandleader turned industrialist whom Kira visited in 1945. With Danny’s money and musical talent and Sonny’s artistic vision, they will create a roller-boogie nightclub to inspire a new generation: Xanadu, a temple to Terpsichore, the muse who not only inspires dancing, but is assigned to protect and remember dance’s legacy. Kira helps Danny and Sonny weave the club’s aesthetics that blend looks and sounds from different eras.

Gene Kelly gets two dance numbers. The first is a flashback duet with Olivia Newton-John and we see that they had a kind of romance in 1945. She dances admirably but can’t touch the fluidity and grace of Gene Kelly. I’d always thought Kelly was schmaltzy and annoying with the exception of What a Way to Go where he lampoons his own star image, and in Xanadu where his overwhelming talent shines through the amateur production. At age 67 Kelly is still in control, able to add flair and expression to each little step, yet he is generous to his lesser costars and never upstages them. Unfortunately, his second dance number is painful to watch. Kelly goes on a shopping spree at Fiorucci’s to ELO’s All Over the World, donning pimp clothes and cowboy fringe as mannequins come to life and dance with the day-glow freaks and punk rock weirdos working at the store. Kelly jumps inside a pinball machine and triggers a set piece which is an obvious nod to the mystery arcade machine in The Band Wagon (a golden age musical that featured the comeback of silver age song and dance star Fred Astair — ooh, the spiral of musical history). In later interviews Kelly remembered Xanadu as a disaster and wondered how modern films were ever finished!

Things get complicated when Sonny and Kira fall in love, expressed in a stupid roller skating number Suddenly set in a recording studio filled with movie props (??). Here Olivia is cautious and lead footed as she putters carefully around the contrived scenery of palmtrees and backdrops — she’d fractured her coccyx while filming the sequence and wasn’t anxious to have another fall. More convincing but oddly out of place, another love song Don’t Walk Away is animated by Don Bluth recently emancipated from Disney Studios and borrows heavily from Fantasia. Confused by her emotions Kira confesses her divine origin, tells Sonny she’ll never forget him, and vanishes in a beam of light. Heartbroken, he pulls out of the disco’s opening. Danny seems unsurprised by Kira’s supernatural identity and urges Sonny to find her. Sonny finds the mural of the nine sisters and rollerskates through it, arriving in a Tron-looking heaven populated by disembodied sparkles and glowing lines. Sonny asks the gods to allow Kira to stay on Earth, but it’s against the rules. He is sent back and the plot grinds to a halt as Kira sings the ballad Suspended in Time in one continuous camera shot while outlined in neon.

Back on Earth Danny and Sonny are opening Xanadu. It is a spectacle of tightrope walkers, mimes, jugglers, zoot suited dancers, retro usherettes, and rollerskating minions clapping and chanting in unison like sieg heil-ing fascists. Danny rollerskates at the front of the pack leading the cheers: “Xanadu (clap-clap-clap) HO…!” As if summoned from heaven, Terpsichore appears looking sophisticated and glamorous as a sleek disco goddess and sings the title song while dodging jugglers’ batons and trick skaters. The frenzy builds until suddenly her eight sisters take the stage. A genre-bending medley ensues including a cutesy Betty Grable-esque tap dance, a tiger-striped vinyl rock number, a country dance, and the finale reprise with the sisters in geometric costumes and Terpsichore as a mylar space queen. For a brief moment Sonny is alone in the club as the muses transform into light and beam back up to heaven. He gets a last glimpse of wholesome Kira in her peasant dress and hair ribbons as she blows him a kiss good-bye and follows her sisters in a kaleidoscopic explosion.

Xanadu was such a disaster-piece of a movie that Michael Beck never worked in serious film again, despite his star turn in the imaginative gangland fantasy Warriors. Fans rued that Gene Kelly’s last musical would stain his unparalleled legacy in cinema musicals. Director Robert Greenwald was honored with the very first Razzie award for worst director, and steered clear of musicals eventually to become an important director of documentaries — in fact, a double feature of Xanadu and Can’t Stop the Music was the inspiration for the Razzie awards!

Olivia Newton-John had less to be ashamed of. Even though Xanadu stunted her movie career (it would take Two of a Kind to kill it off three years later), she walked away with another number one single Magic, and a string of hits including her duet with Cliff Richard, and the title song with ELO which reached number one in the UK. The following year she would transform her wholesome image with the pop song Physical which held at the top of the charts for ten weeks. At the time she claimed rather tongue-in-cheekly that Xanadu hadn’t hurt her career because not enough people had seen it, but she admitted she was more interested in the music and would have been disappointed if the album had flopped. Instead disco became another genre for her to topple as she effortlessly slid from country to pop charts, gaining fans across three continents.

Everyone else from animator Don Bluth to ELO frontman Jeff Lynne distanced themselves from the project. Bluth had become involved when Don’t Walk Away was cut from the film and Lynne insisted the song be restored despite there being no room or need for it in the plot. Bluth was busy making The Secret of NIMH and had just 12 weeks to create the fantasy segment where Olivia Newton-John transforms first into a fish then a bird wearing leg-warmers. Bluth kept a small team of animators at his home until it was complete, and it stands alone as a charming romantic cartoon. Nearly identical sequences would be recycled for Bluth’s Thumbilina…. After charting fifteen top-20 hits in the ’70s, and four more from the Xanadu soundtrack alone, Lynne dissolved ELO replacing his band of 13 years with synthesizers. He went on to record the synth-pop soundtrack for Electric Dreams and eventually released his original version of the title song with his own voice instead of Newton-John’s.

When I bought my rare Japanese import soundtrack in 1994, Xanadu was almost forgotten except for a few die-hard disco fans. Today it enjoys a revival on DVD, sing-along midnight movies at The Castro, and a possible Broadway version helmed by John Farrar, Newton-John’s longtime producer. It is silly and naive and at it’s best laughably bad — at it’s worst a trainwreck reminder of the cinematic musical craft that has been lost forever. But there will never be another sparkle and neon-filled movie that so earnestly urges us to believe in the magic of disco. Xanadu is an artist’s utopia, where beauty is the highest order and history is not forgotten, where multi-racial sisters unite in dance and music, and every cute boy is an artist who just needs the right girl to inspire him to greatness.