Tuesday, August 30, 2011

XANADU 1980

8/8/80. These cryptic numbers jumped out at me from posters, billboards, and newspaper ads all over Los Angeles during the summer of 1980. Was it apocalypse? Armageddon? Well, yes and no. The numbers represented August 8th,1980: the theatrical release date of the roller disco movie musical, Xanadu 
The tale of a legwarmer wearin', sundress rockin', rollerskatin', glow-in-the-dark muse (the heavenly Olivia Newton-John) who comes to earth to inspire a disillusioned artist (the uncomfortable-appearing Michael Beck) and retired bandleader (the ever-charming Gene Kelly) realize their dream of opening a roller rink/disco/nightclub; Xanadu is like nothing I've seen before or since. It's a law unto itself.  
This photo pretty much captures the reaction of the nation's film critics to Xanadu when it opened in the summer of 1980
Widely panned on its release, the detonated bomb that was Xanadu had a catastrophic effect on the screen careers of its promising young stars, decimated the musical legitimacy of its composers, and single-handedly lay waste the roller-disco fad; all in one fell swoop. Yet, like a phoenix rising from the ashes (or a zombie that refuses to die even after you've fired a bullet into its brain), Xanadu has gone on to become a genuine camp/cult classic and is perhaps the most beloved bad film since Valley of the Dolls (which, by law of averages, really should have been turned into a stage musical by now).
Olivia Newton-John is Kira
Gene Kelly is Danny McGuire
Michael Beck is Sonny Malone
Given the lengths to which the film's participants and Universal Studios have gone to distance themselves from it over the years, many would be surprised to learn that back in 1980, Xanadu was released with the kind of massive advertising blitzkrieg usually only afforded sci-fi & action films. Ostensively poised as the next Grease (a film I absolutely loathed that surprised everybody by becoming the largest grossing film of 1978), Xanadu was almost obnoxiously ubiquitous.  

Not that I'm complaining, mind you.
On the contrary, the glut of TV specials, radio promos, magazine articles, comic books, merchandising tie-ins and cross-promotions mirrored my own excitement when I learned that my favorite rock group of all time (The Electric Light Orchestra—the preferred band of all the stoners at my high school) would actually be collaborating with little Miss "Have You Never Been Mellow", Olivia Newton-John (arguably the most white-bread singer on the charts next to Debbie Boone).
This was before the days of pop stars changing their images with each new album release, so the prospect of the new-and-improved, 1979 model ONJ of "Totally Hot" (the terrific album that prompted a music critic to cite: "The tight pants Olivia wore at the end of Grease must have gone to her head") cutting loose in an original movie musical scored by a band known for its deliriously theatrical bombast, had me thinking that Xanadu had the potential to be another cinematic mind-blower like Ken Russell's film of The Who's Tommy. To say I was stoked to see Xanadu is a monumental understatement. I was so excited I practically gave myself a nosebleed.
Starry Eyed
One of the things I liked most about Xanadu was its sweetly optimistic vision of the 80s as a multi-generational, cross-cultural utopia where differences are accepted and originality encouraged. Lady Gaga would be proud.
I saw Xanadu on opening night at Mann's Chinese Theater with an audience that apparently hadn't read the reviews telling them that they weren't having a good time. The theater was packed and the air was full of the excitement of attending an event. Every musical number was met with thunderous applause, catcalls and whistles greeted various names during the closing credit crawl, and (probably for the first and last time) only the intentional humor got laughs. 
As for me, I had passed through the looking glass somewhere around the time Gene Kelly, age 67, danced on an oversized pinball machine, displaying a beatific smile and the same effortless grace of that young man who made his screen debut in For Me & My Gal (1942).
I don't know what hit me (perhaps I was kissed by a muse myself) , but I left the theater that night a different person from the one I was when I went in.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
It's ironic that the dominant design motif in a movie as unwieldy as Xanadu is the sleekly economic elegance of Streamline Moderne. Real and studio-enhanced examples of Streamline Moderne architecture appear throughout Xanadu, as befitting the film's blending of music and design styles from the 40s and 80s.
Both critics and audiences were at a loss to figure out what Sonny Malone's dream of  being a serious artist had to do with the opening of a roller-disco nightclub. The script drops the ball in making this clear, but close inspection of the film reveals that Sonny's artistic dreams come imaginatively true in his designs for Xanadu.
The model of the Hollywood Bowl "Muse" fountain in Sonny's apartment...
...becomes a fountain for real-life muse Kira to dance in front of in the realized Xanadu of Sonny's dream
One of Sonny's earlier discarded sketches (top) is realized as a modernist Greek column (behind Beck in photo above) in his final design for Xanadu.
The Streamline Moderne appliances in Sonny's apartment (top) find whimsical expression in Xanadu's metallic chairs (center) and the oversized waffle-iron stage that Ms. Newton-John is perched on above.

PERFORMANCES:
 Save for Gene Kelly's, there are no performances to speak of in Xanadu, so I'd rather not waste space by bashing the leads. There are plenty of sites online for that. What I would like to address is the matter of onscreen chemistry (or the lack of it) that provides Xanadu with many of it's unintentional laughs and much of its homoerotic subtext. First off, not since Can't Stop The Music has a film worked so strenuously to establish the heterosexuality of its hero.

Perhaps the filmmakers thought Kira's neutered sexuality (until the smoking-hot finale where she sings something like 28 songs in succession) and Sonny's penchant for tight jeans and skimpy shorts, made Xanadu even gayer than it already was (not possible really, but let's go with that); so within the film's first half hour, we have every third line of dialog reminding us that Sonny is a babe-magnet irresistible to women. Friends offer to fix him up, women flirt outrageously, and for the really slow-witted, an annoying co-worker (the sort who would be the first to be killed off were this were a horror film. Which it kinda is...) just comes out and says it. Later, when Sonny meets up with a buddy whose van he painted, the friend is given an insipid line of post-dubbed dialog ("Hey, and the chicks love it!") calculated to dispel any viewer suspicion that muscular guys in short shorts roller skating along the Venice boardwalk are anything but skirt-chasing heteros. 
Real Men Roller Skate
What throws a monkey-wrench into all this machismo is the fact that Beck and Newton-John exhibit zero screen chemistry, while Beck's scenes with Gene Kelly fairly crackle with magnetism and unintentional sexual innuendo. While everybody was making sure that every female in the cast was hailing Sonny Malone as some kind of roller-skating Super Fly, someone failed to notice that they gave Gene Kelly too many lines that make him sound like a genial sugar-daddy on the make. He's forever comparing business partnerships and friendships to marriage or sex. And wouldn't you know it, Michael Beck and Gene Kelly have an easier screen rapport than Beck has with his fluorescently glowing love interest.
Sonny and Danny, moments before yet another ill-timed interruption from Kira

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
It's no mistake that Xanadu's soundtrack album took on a life independent of the failure of the film. The music by John Farrar and Jeff Lynne is some of the best ever composed for a musical. "All Over The World" is a lasting favorite (it always makes me feel happy inside) and the much-anticipated (by me) teaming of ONJ and ELO on the song "Xanadu" makes for one of the best pop singles to come out of the 80s. The unique musical qualities of each artist seem to bring out the best in both. ELO's soaring, overreaching orchestrations have always cried out for a voice as ethereally sensual as Olivia's, and Lynne manages to get her to shed some of the saccharine from her voice to deliver a solidly virtuoso  pop performance. Nobody could maneuver the rhythmical twist and turns of this elaborately arranged piece the way Olivia Newton-John does. I think it's the best vocal performance of her career.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
August 8, 1980 is a date that has more significance for me than the release of a lovably awful musical that nevertheless captured my heart and imagination back when I was a young student filmmaker hoping to break into the movie business.

8/8/80 represents the day I decided I was going to become a dancer.

A revelatory decision made all the more astounding when taking into account that, after studying film for nearly 4 years and being exposed to some of the greatest cinematic works ever created, the motion picture that inspired me to change the course of my life at age 22 was none other than that much-maligned muse of a musical, Xanadu. (This should give hope to producers of flops the world over.)  Maybe it was the music, the choreography, the visual style, or maybe the film's theme about the importance of following your dreams...who knows? It makes me ask myself: is the emotional experience of seeing a "good" film more valid than the emotional experience drawn from seeing a "bad" one, and should it matter so long as they make us feel something? Whatever the reasons, I left the theater that night convinced that there couldn't be a life more blissful or fulfilling than a life spent dancing.
The dancers beckoned, and I said YES!
Briefly summarized, I wound up quitting film school and threw myself into several intense years of dance training. Never looking back, nor regretting the decision, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I have been a professional dancer for over 25 years now and I'm happy to say that it has far exceeded my expectations of what I thought it could bring to my life. I never before believed that dreams could come true like they did in the movies. And like it or not... Xanadu is the film I have  to thank for it all. (Although I must confess that I wasn't as happy about that fact as I am now. Until about the year 2000, it really wasn't "cool" to say you liked Xanadu. Whenever anyone would ask me about the Xanadu license plates on my car, I would lie and say it was in reference to Citizen Kane. Such disloyalty!)  

I'm in my 50's now and still dancing. And I only hope that should I be lucky enough to make it to my 67th year, my heart contains even a glimmer of the joy that Gene Kelly's smile radiated in that pinball sequence that still knocks me for a loop after all these years. It's funny. Who'd ever guess that one of the worst films ever made would lead me to the best in my life? Worst film? Don't you believe it.
You Have To Believe We Are Magic
*Footnote: To coin the title of another Olivia Newton-John hit, in an odd "Twist of Fate," I was invited to appear and tell my story in the retrospective documentary "Going Back to Xanadu" included as a special feature on the 2008 Xanadu DVD release. Talk about full circle. Me on the DVD of the movie that changed my life, talking about how it changed my life! You can't tell me that a muse didn't have a hand in all this....Magic indeed!

12 comments:

  1. Hello again Ken,

    Thank you for writing a serious and appreciative review of "Xanandu". It's too easy to just say it was a bad flop like everyone else has.

    When I was a teen I heard the song "Xanadu" playing on the radio and proceeded to buy the cassette (remember those?) of the soundtrack. Ever since then it has been one of my favourite movie soundtracks and I play it now and then. Great pop songs!

    I wanted to see the film when it was released but it seemed to disappear from the cinemas quite quickly, but I got to see it on video and I loved it. I saw it again a few years ago and as a film it doesn't really hold up, but the musucal numbers are fun and the end musical number still gives me chills. Olivia is at her most fabulous there! The screen caps you include really show this.

    I want to love the film as much as much as I love the soundtrack but there are two things which keeps this film from being one of my top favourites: the plot (or lack of) and Michael Beck. (I laughed when you wrote how they tried to make him seem like a babe magnet!)
    Other than that, I can understand why this film has become a camp classic.

    I'll have to see it again soon. I liked what you wrote about how it shines with optimism for the 1980's. I didn't know that there was so much publicity for the film before it was released! It was great to read that this film had such positive impact on your life and that you became a dancer because of it!! Wow.

    I wonder why there wasn't a better script. Is it explained in the documentary in the special edition dvd? I'll have to get it and see you in it! It's great that they asked you to comment about Xanadu!

    I love that you write that Olivia "sings something like 28 songs in succession"! Do you know if some of those songs that weren't on the soundtrack were ever released somewhere else? I love that Olivia tries to be a bit punky in her leopard print miniskirt!

    -Wille

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  2. Hello Wille
    You're right when you say that "Xanadu" as a film just doesn't hold up, that that doesn't mean that it doesn't lay claim to myriad other delights, not all of them mired in camp.
    The huge level of hype attendant its release (especially here in Los Angeles) is at direct odds with most people's memory of it as a flop that quickly disappeared. Xanadu was one of those post-Grease films that thought it could market itself to success.
    The problems with its screenplay could probably be attributed to the route the film took to being made. Conceived as a simple roller boogie movie, when mega star ONJ became attached, the Hollywood machine lurched into action and decisions and rewrites were made to accommodate cast additions(Kelly), departures (Andy Gibb's initial involvement at least indicate that Sonny would have a song or two), and having an eye on being a bigger hit than Grease. (For behind the scene details, I suggest the wonderful "Xanadu Preservation Society" website. Absolutely EVERYTHING you might want to know about this film is there. Click the "info on all things Xanadu" link at the bottom of this post).
    As for the music, I few lot of songs that weren't on the Xanadu soundtrack ( That country western song, the punk song, and her Big Band rendition of You made me love you)wound up appearing on some ONJ music collection at some time but I don't know which one. A fan gave me a disc of these songs and so i have them on my ipod. If you're interested, drop a line to my email and I can send you the mp3s.
    Glad you enjoyed my post, and I'm happier still that you took the time to comment!

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  3. Thank you Ken for all the information! Fascinating to read that Andy Gibb was attached! It would have been so much better with him in it.

    I will check out the site that you mention. I'm glad that Xanandu still has so many fans. I hope new ones discover it! I would love to hear those songs not on the soundtrack in full versions!!!

    -Wille

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  4. Thanks Ken!! Keep Dancin, and every now and then..put in the DVD of this wonderful movie in just for fun. As for me, I'll keep spereading the word no just how good this movie can make you feel.

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    1. Thank you! I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, but so many people I've introduced to this film echo your sentiments...the movie is a lot of fun and makes you feel good.

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  5. It really pains me that Olivia was blamed for everything that was wrong with this movie, as she did not write (or REWRITE) the script, and that Michael Beck blamed her for the end of his acting career...the fact of the matter is that she kept right on working after "Xanadu", and kept right on working after her WORST FLOP "Two Of A Kind" with John Travolta (which had the controversy surrounding Olivia's character saying "sh**", I might add! And Gene Hackman didn't lose his status for playing the voice of God.) Olivia bashed no one after "Xanadu" flopped, instead she emphasized the thrill of dancing with Gene Kelly, and thanked concert tour audience members who enjoyed the movie. Pure class she is. And even though her music today isn't Billboard Chart material, she still is arguably one of music/entertainment's reigning icons. Sad that most of her co-stars in "Xanadu", including ex-hubby Matt Lattanzi, didn't take notes on how she's kept her career going in the 34 years since that (entertaining) cinematic mess.

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    1. So sorry for the late response...not sure how i missed your comment. Yes, one of the enduring complaints of many actors (Faye Dunaway, Karen Black, Raquel Welch, and Barbra Streisand come to mind) is how, because they are "out front" they tend to get saddled with the entirety of the blame for a film's lack of success. Especially when in many instances they are doing their job and have no say in editing, writing or the casting of co stars.
      It must be a vulnerable position to be in.
      Happily, they usually have been paid a bundle (so i can't cry too hard on their behalf) and, if they are lucky and/or talented, they tend to bounce back and recover.
      And sometimes, the sweetest revenge must be to see a film that was once branded a flop, become embraced in later years as a cult favorite.
      Although I don't know your name, thank you for your comment and apologies for not seeing it when it was first posted!

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  6. As usual, you are SPOT ON! Great post, Ken.

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    1. Thom, As I often say, I don't know where you find the time to read so many of my posts, but I am flattered as hell that you do, and that you have the generosity to drop a line with a nice compliment. much appreciated, my friend. Thanks!

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    2. I have plenty of time -- I'm unemployed! And your posts definitely make that time a little more enjoyable.

      (When I read this, I actually thought it was a new post but now I see it's from a few years back! I've no doubt that your sentiments are the same now, if not more so!)

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  7. Spot on review, Ken!

    Xanadu wasn't a fine film with a nice, tight script, Oscar caliber acting and deep, hidden meaning within the lines... it was just fun, and if you tried to make it anything else, you were looking too far - reaching too hard - you just didn't get it. It might not have been a great movie, but it was a great time, and that was the point.

    Keep on dancing, and thanks for a wonderful review!

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    1. Thank YOU!
      Yes, "Xanadu" even in its conception, merely wanted to entertain. Personally, given how many cooks had their hands in the making of this stew, i'm grateful it turned out as well as it did. You sound like a fan of the film and I'm pleased you enjoyed my write-up!

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