‘Xanadu’ or — One Of The Most Influential Movies Ever Made?!

I’m highly biased when it comes to ‘Xanadu’ (1980) as I was ten years old when it came out and my favourite band in the world back then was The Electric Light Orchestra. I owned the soundtrack and rented the video a lot. Of course I was going to love it. But, like my youth, I hadn’t seen ‘Xanadu’ in decades. How would I find revisiting it today as a middle-aged man who’s now into Peter Brotzmann and Conlon Nancarrow? This could be a massive mistake.

‘Xanadu’ concerns Terpischore aka Kira (Olivia Newton-John), one of the nine Greek muses of myth, who comes to present day (1980s) L.A. where she inspires a struggling artist (Michael Beck) and an aging clarinet player (Gene Kelly) to open up a roller-disco together. And that’s it! There is literally (or figuratively for that matter) nothing more to ‘Xanadu’ than that, which could explain why it’s only 96 minutes long. What isn’t explicable is that it’s also a musical with a shit load of song and dance numbers in it meaning if you stripped them away then narrative could be told in twenty minutes or less. This film’s plot is so undernourished it would have Italian mothers screaming at it to eat more pasta before it permanently faded away into the L.A. night.

What plot there is here is delivered with the clunking and crunching of a first draft, and that’s if a final shooting script was ever completed in the first place. Characters are awkwardly crow-barred in, as opposed to organically introduced, and in the most cack-handed way possible, their traits and personalities spoken aloud to us by their friends who already know them but still feel the need to verbally describe this person every time they meet. ‘Xanadu’ is so badly written it almost hurts.

So far ‘Xanadu’ is looking too good.

However, much like the Muses descending from Mount Olympus there are some graces here to save (in the loosest possible sense) this roller-disco fever-dream. ‘Xanadu’ is a full-on love letter to forties musicals and music, augmented by the current rock music of the day, and this affection for this era, embodied by Gene Kelly still looking spritely (that Kelly smile has not faded one iota), is rather endearing. This is unashamed, throwback nostalgia and it’s all rather cute and it’s kinda hard not to get caught up in it.

This nostalgia is contrasted by the look of eighties L.A., glowing with pastel and neon art-deco modernity as Kira and her sisters zoom and fly about like escaped ghosts from Egon’s containment system and some of the special effects sequences, although somewhat silly, have a charming, distinct and unique look to them; in terms of visual aesthetics I have a real soft spot for this movie.

What’s also striking is the soundtrack with John Farrar providing the songs for Newton-John’s musical numbers and ELO bolstering up the rockier end of things with some strong melodic numbers. Oddly, this time round, I slightly preferred the Farrar tunes (ten year old me would balk at such an outrageous opinion) and I think it’s the variation Farrar brings to the material (ELO are great but always sound like ELO) that appealed. The number ‘Dancin’” by ONJ and The Tubes where old fashioned music gradually blends, both sonically and visually, with rock is surprisingly effective and a shockingly catchy number. Likewise with ‘Suspended In Time’, a strong melodic ballad ONJ seems to sing on the set of ‘Tron’ (1982), and I even liked ‘Suddenly’ this time round with its Bee-Gees-esque harmonies during the chorus ONJ performs with er… Cliff Richard. Then again, Farrar also co-produced the music to ‘Grease’ (1978) and while the ‘Xanadu’s music isn’t quite up there with those songs you can tell the guy has a firm grasp of the material and can pluck a good tune out the air.

The ELO tracks are typically strong and typically ELO with ‘I’m Alive’ kicking the film off with a decent punch and, of course, ‘Xanadu’ is perennially awesome, even if the closing dance sequence it accompanies has to be seen to be believed. ‘Don’t Walk Away’ is even turned into an animated sequence by the great Don Bluth, even if he is obviously ripping off his former employers, Disney, with a brazen lack of shame.

Not that it’s all cheesy fun as there’s some (shock, horror) toe-curlingly god-awful moments in ‘Xanadu’ too: ‘All Over The World’ is a decent song but the accompanying visuals seems edited together after the fact (as I said, this doesn’t feel like a finished film) and even though director Robert Greenwald brings some style to the proceedings he lacks the grace, lightness and ambition of the directors of old he is homaging. This film often feels like Busby Berkley with his wings clipped so even though there’s some decent choreography it never quite gets presented the way it should to really show it all off. It must be the roller-skates weighing everybody’s feet down.

There are plenty of other negatives too such as the acting veering from quaint to woeful with Michael Beck coming across as particularly lacking charisma as well as sounding like Billy Crystal with a nasal infection. And I’m still not sure what ONJ’s role is in this movie other than to inspire men to create in a bizarrely non-sexual way.

If you’ve never seen ‘Xanadu’ but always wondered what it would be like if an aging Gene Kelly pranced about on roller-skates with a glowing Olivia Newton-John whilst The Electric Light Orchestra went at it full blast then you won’t be disappointed. If it sounds like your idea of hell then you won’t get past the description on the cover, so you’re safe too. It’s not a classic but it’s mercifully short meaning it’s, essentially, just a collection of decent to strong pop-rock songs strung together by awkward, but good-natured, naffness.

This naffness was so strong in ‘Xanadu’ that when publicist John J. B. Wilson saw the film back in 1980 it inspired him to create the first ever Golden Raspberry Awards. So, in the end, Kira was a very effective muse after all and one who helped trigger a bigger cultural impact than she, or anyone else, could’ve imagined. For that alone it could just be one of the most influential movies ever made.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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