Xanadu (1980)

Ghostbusters! I mean…Xanadu! Olivia Newton-John is attacked by a bad effect.

Directed by Robert Greenwald. Screenplay by Richard Christian Danus, Marc Reid Rubel. Produced by Lawrence Gordon. Music by Barry De Vorzon. Photographed by Victor J. Kemper. Edited by Dennis Virkler. Production designed by John W. Corso. Starring Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck, James Sloyan, Dimitra Arliss, Katie Hanley, Fred McCarren, Renn Woods.

Xanadu is a big miscalculation of a movie musical, consisting of one part Olivia Newton-John, one part twisted-up Greek mythology and two parts forgettable songs, all wrapped up in one story that is seriously dumb. It’s the story of a struggling artist inspired by a living, breathing muse (yes, a muse) to transform a dilapidated warehouse into a nightclub and rollerskating rink named Xanadu, and if you can think of better things for a muse to invest her precious time in, then so can I. I could think of musicals more corny than this one, like Oklahoma!, although at least Oklahoma! has the excuse of being set in a place where they actually grow corn. Xanadu shares the name of the palatial estate that Charles Foster Kane shambles through in the closing scenes of Citizen Kane, but there’s very little that Xanadu has in common with Kane, except that in both movies, the establishments named Xanadu are large monuments to wretched excess.

Actually, both Xanadus are inspired by the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which Xanadu the movie quotes several times, just to show you its own literacy. The poem, which refers to the summer palace of Chinese emperor Kublai Khan (not Kubla), doesn’t really seem to have much to say about why turning a building in a crummy Los Angeles neighborhood into a roller skate disco is a good idea, but Coleridge is deep, man, so I won’t argue. Definitely missing from the Coleridge poem are any descriptions of the Greek muses, who in this movie spring to life from a mural that has been helpfully painted on a wall nearby the apartment of tortured artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck). All of the muses are very beautiful women, because that comes with the muse territory. One in particular, Terpsichore, a.k.a. Kira, a.k.a. Olivia Newton-John, falls in love with Sonny, and given the fact that she’s thousands of years old, this may make her cinema’s first cougar.

Kira, as I’ll refer to her for the rest of the review, is basically a Magic Pixie Dream Girl that is powered by actual magic. A Magic Pixie Dream Girl, we remember, is a love interest who only exists to be a supportive, epiphany-dispensing partner for a hero, bereft of any personality of her own. That’s Kira, who is the goddess of dance and chorus. The muses by definition take an obsessive interest in human behavior, so we can forgive Kira for her tunnel vision in the matter, even though you’d imagine the stack of cases on her desk must be sky-high after she spends weeks on this little roller rink trifle. But why the lack of curiosity in who she is and what she thinks? Because Xanadu is a wish-fulfillment fantasy where a male artist (essentially an avatar for the screenwriter and director) is told by a supreme being how awesome he is. Male artists love telling stories like this, and for some reason truly believe that we love hearing them.

Now about Olivia Newton-John. She’s not very good in Xanadu, in much the same way that in Grease (1978), she’s also not very good.  In Grease, she was Sandy, a goody two-shoes who realized that to get her man she had to become a leather-jacket wearing skank, and did so. In Xanadu, Newton-John again plays two roles: that of a Greek muse and that of a performer at the Xanadu nightclub in the grand finale. Yes, technically they are the same character, but that doesn’t explain why Newton-John is so much more relaxed and confident during that blow-out of a bad taste climax. Then you realize that while Newton-John doesn’t really seem to know how to play a muse, she definitely knows how to play Olivia Newton-John, and that’s basically all that the ending of Xanadu asks her to do. It’s like a concert video with a big, long, drab slab of a story leading up to it, a story that no one seems to truly believe in.

So let’s get back to Sonny, a half-assed Los Angeles bohemian who makes his living reproducing full-size album covers, which is a lame job, you know? One day he bumps into Kira at Palisades Park, and then when he arrives at work he’s amazed at the fact that a woman who looks just like Kira happens to be on the album cover he’s replicating. Maybe it’s an Olivia Newton-John album? Or maybe the guy who painted the mural did the artwork? By the way, has anyone noticed that there’s a mural in Santa Monica that has eight muses missing from it? Hello?

Right. Sorry. Sonny, appropriately enough in a movie about muses, has a Greek chorus in the other people who work in his tiny art studio, who all spend way too much time fretting about whether Sonny’s gonna get fired and what he’s doing with his life, and not enough time wondering the same about themselves. They’re all lorded over by the penny-pinching Mr. Simpson (James Sloyan), who butts heads with Sonny because the young man’s such an upstart arrogant artist, and he should really be in this profession for the money. He’s the man, you see. And Sonny is not the man. He’s so not the man that during one scene he chases Kira by asking to borrow a young lady’s motorbike, and she smiles and sexily tells him to bring it back in person. Aww. Everybody really does love Sonny, although if you asked the movie why that is, it would probably harrumph and shuffle its index cards nervously.

The movie’s attention to detail is not exactly impressive. Mr. Simpson, who is set up to be a low-key adversary (secondary only to the soon-to-appear Zeus), gnashes his teeth a lot and pushes Sonny around, but nothing much comes of it. This is the kind of movie where Simpson orders Sonny to come to his office in five minutes, and the movie shows us the intervening moments in real time. What happens to Simpson in the end? Nothing. Sonny quits and he’s forgotten. Because when you’re following your dreams, who cares about the man? Nor do we get much information on why Sonny believes raising Xanadu will be so successful. Just punch-drunk on muse-love, I guess.

Let’s explain why Gene Kelly is in the movie. Yes, Gene Kelly, who appeared in the single best movie musical of all time [Singin’ in the Rain, 1958), and now appears in one of the worst, in what I can only assume was a fit of desperation brought on by bills. He plays Danny McGuire, the same character name he had in Cover Girl (1944) opposite Rita Hayworth, because referencing a good movie inside your bad one is always a good idea. Danny, a former big-band leader who played with all the greats, finds a kindred spirit in Sonny. Sonny, as we said earlier, is perfect and everyone loves him, and he proves his perfection to Danny by bonding over Benny Goodman. See, this is how we know Sonny is an Old Soul, and why he would be the perfect person to bring a roller-rink that combines big band with rock and roll to Los Angeles. If you’re thinking this all sounds like some garish camp version of Field of Dreams, you’re still envisioning a movie that’s better than this is.

As I said, Kira falls in love with Sonny. And of course Sonny falls in love with Kira, because Newton-John was like the Taylor Swift of her day: no screen presence, no acting ability, but man, what a smile. Kira, who neglects to explain to Sonny that their love is ill-fated due to the ephemeral nature of muses, sure leads the poor guy on, but we discover she has a habit of that. Danny, in a dreamlike reverie, remembers his old big-band partner, and wouldn’t you know, it was Kira! That two-timing muse! How does Danny react when he learns that a former romance is actually an immortal being who is now trying to help build a nightclub roller rink? He’s not really allowed to have a reaction. So much for that.

The romance lacks all sense of passion. Kira is wishy-washy naif who seems to delight in tormenting the lovestruck Sonny, and the way Newton-John plays it, that’s not the hand of fate that’s being dealt, it’s Kira’s own vapidity. I’m not saying Olivia Newton-John is dumb at all; stars are rarely dumb, because it takes smarts to make a name for yourself. What I’m saying is that she’s not a seasoned enough actress to convince us the love story is real, or that Kira has any weight behind her claims of muse-ness, or that Kira is anything other than a fantasy woman wrapped up in flighty airheaded-ness. She plays it with such unrestrained innocence that when she’s with Sonny, she looks like she needs a chaperone, and when she shows up in roller skates, we wonder who tied them for her. And let’s not ignore poor Michael Beck as Sonny, who seems like a nice enough chap but has the presence of a linoleum post, but with less purpose.

Xanadu, as a narrative, has this peculiar habit of pausing for outrageous interludes that seem at right angles to everything else. There’s not just musical numbers; that’s expected. There’s also an animated sequence (by Don Bluth) that doesn’t seem to need to be animated, and there’s a trip to a digital Mt. Olympus that even on a bad-special-effects level doesn’t work (and all import is dashed when Kira greets her love with “Sonny! Howdja git heya?”). And once the nightclub is close to finished, Danny, Sonny and friends go for a night on the town and are able to conjure a whole clatch of sweaty, peculiar dancers who are up for all kinds of subpar Bob Fosse-esque adventures. Where did these people come from? Did they wander off the street, simply swayed by the music of the gods and the charms of Terpsichore? I guess. This scene happens in every musical, where a crowd becomes a single instrument in a humungous production number, but better musicals make us not question that, and almost every musical ever made is better than Xanadu.

The musical numbers are a hodgepodge of disco, rock, and pop, which feels like a cynical ploy to capture several audiences at once; remember this was made in 1980, when the era of disco was coming to a close, so no wonder they hedged their bets. Only one sequence in the entire movie works, and that’s the closing number, where dancers skate around in odd patterns and employ bizarre acrobatics all to title title tune, which, I admit, is pretty darn catchy. But even then, the songs are choreographed with little wit or style, presenting a flurry of activity and then processing it through camera angles that flatten and cheapen the entire look (which looks kinda cheap to begin with). The staging of this number, which is the best scene in the movie, is pedestrian and confusing, as if it was shot on a TV budget and schedule. Other moments, like Sonny’s courtship of Kira to “Magic” on a darkened soundstage, are just confusing, and are as romantic as a tax audit.

I think the fundamental problem of Xanadu is that there’s just no juice to anything. Certainly not the songs, but also not the love story, which is bathed in clichés and performed by actors so indifferent they can barely be bothered to make themselves look good, let alone their characters. Sonny and Kira have no chemistry, Sonny’s dreams are trite, and the whole enterprise feels resigned, as if the filmmakers knew they were making a roller-skating musical, weren’t happy about it, and couldn’t muster up even any phony enthusiasm. One moment is fun, and it’s where Kira takes an unusual route in persuading Sonny her story is legitimate by turning on the TV, where the actors in the movie being broadcast break character and start talking to Sonny. The film needed more flights of fancy like that.

Is there room for movie musicals like Xanadu, which pride themselves on camp and corn? I sure hope so. But there’s not much room for Xanadu itself, because it never finds a reason for being. I’m not jaded enough to think that Xanadu, in concept, could not work. All I do know is that as presented, it does not work. In 2007, a Broadway musical based on the movie opened, which is as improbable a thing as I could possibly imagine. But then, I’m not the guy who dreamed up Xanadu. Ah, the dreamers. Gods bless them.

GRADE: D

NOTE: This movie is still better than Rock of Ages.

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2 thoughts on “Xanadu (1980)

  1. Mark V November 27, 2012 / 2:16 am

    Film reviews that celebrate a popular classic and perhaps offer a new perspective of it themes or relate its subject to contemporary times? Most understandable.

    Film reviews that reveal the shortcomings of a motion picture that has been, until now, almost universally accepted as a masterpiece? Again, I can see why one might wish to do this.

    Nasty elongated rants about a good-natured film, tirades that seek only to belittle and berate the feature in question, that has already been subjected to streams of vitriol since it first appeared more than thirty years ago? I fail to comprehend the reasoning behind this rather tiresome, redundant exercise.

    “Xanadu” serves as a convenient little target for film reviewers who wish to beat up on something without running the risk of ridicule from their peers. Can’t think of which film to ridicule this week? Relax, there’s always “Xanadu”. Oh no, forget about the latest parade of blunders clogging up the multiplex or the freshly-released pretentious rubbish that pollutes the arthouse circuit. Let’s just continue to herd people away from “Xanadu”, a motion picture whose reputation has largely been in shambles just because a bunch of “elite” film critics decided more than thirty years ago that nobody should see “Xanadu”, and that every existing copy of this film ought to be gathered and destroyed.

    I’ve never read a film review that has managed to substantiate its negative take on “Xanadu”. Invariably, they end up missing the point entirely, and soon resort to imagining “bad things” about the film that actually aren’t there.

    Case in point from the above review is Olivia Newton-John’s supposedly incompetent command of the English language. Olivia Newton-John does not speak like “Sonny, howdja git heya?” Australians generally don’t speak like a bunch of slack-jawed hillbillies.
    Certainly not ONJ, who is in fact British by birth. Believe me, I’ve heard far too many Americans trash the English language to take this sort of Yankee abuse about the (ostensibly uncultured) way that Aussies talk. ONJ might be Australian, but she doesn’t speak “ocker”.

    As for the “bad special effects” in “Xanadu”, this is one of the few films where special effects are allowed to look like special effects, because we’re dealing with pure fantasy. The special effects are meant to represent fantastic things, as opposed to special effects that represent everyday things (e.g. computer-generated imaging used to mimick buildings, explosions and vehicles in action flicks, etc). That doesn’t necessarily make them “bad”. I’m a huge fan of the luminous colours that encompass the Muses in this film. It’s simple and it’s effective, and I can “buy” into it. We know we’re watching a fantasy. You want unconvincing special effects, I could point to any number of mega-budgeted films from recent years whose CGI is far-less convincing than what you see in “Xanadu”.

    So what if the mural is missing eight muses? Murals change all the time, they can be scrubbed, painted over, and how many people would really notice, anyway? Even fewer people would actually care.

    It’s ludicrous to slate the songs as being “unmemorable” and that there is “no juice” to them, only to turn around and credit the title number as being “pretty darn catchy”. But it’s not just the title song: “Magic”, “All Over The World” and “Dancin'” are also rather pleasurable. Also, one must rememmber that even though the film wasn’t a huge box office success, the soundtrack album was a major global hit.

    Why do Sonny and Danny want to create a musical palace called “Xanadu”? For crying out loud, why does anybody want to do anything in a movie? Sonny can’t stand working for Mister Simpson. Danny is nostalgic for the good old days. There’s a building with their names written all over it, and they figure that it would be a grand idea to turn it into a musical palace with roller skating dancers, an Andrews Sisters tribute act, a rock band clad in “electric orange” and Olivia Newton-John prancing about in an assortment of fanc dress costumes. Don’t tell me you’ve never had similarly weird daydreams at your workplace.

    “Xanadu” is essentailly a long form music video, and if you enjoy the music enough, it’s rather easy to sit through it. If you don’t then it’s obviously not for you.

    Perhaps the most amazing thing about the above review is that all those paragraphs don’t even reveal the fact that the Electric Light Orchestra is responsible for much of the soundtrack. “Xanadu” no reason for being? Well, as I said, it’s a long form musical video, and it existed as much to promote ONJ as a pop star as much as a top-billed movie star.

    When I discuss “Xanadu” with people who have actually seen the movie, they all comment about how wonderful it is. It’s there for people who have a sense of fantasy and escapism–and who enjoy the music. It also looks spectacular on the big screen. Trust me when I tell you that I’ve seen a lot of films at the cinema in my time. “Xanadu” is an amazing big screen experience.

  2. FichenDich March 11, 2013 / 1:17 pm

    The review above hits the nail on the head. Only the passage of time, the mellowness it engenders, prevents me from — excoriating is too harsh a word — screw it, he’s being too kind.

    BUT… that has nothing to do with what possessed me to reply. Xanadu is one of the few films I have studiously avoided seeing. In 1980, among my circle of friends, Xanadu was the end all, be all, of cinematic art. I finally saw it in 2010. 30 years after its release. As a film, my worst fears were warranted. It was however a trip down memory lane. Instantly, and for about an hour and a half, I was 18 again. The reverie…

    In the final analysis, if you don’t have a reservoir of fond memories from 1980, life really is too short to indulge such schlock. I concur with the D grade. I would add to the note, actually, there are quite a few worse films. Thus the D is deserved.

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