Thursday, August 2, 2012

Xanadu (1980) - Quite Simply, One of My favorites

Xanadu 1980 original movie poster
"Xanadu" (1980).

It was a cold, grim winter. It was a time before cable TV and video games, and we were going to school in frigid upstate New York. For fun each weekend, we would head down to the one and only theater in our tiny campus town and watch whatever happened to be playing.

Olivia Newton-John from Xanadu 1980 outlined in purple
No, Olivia, take me! Take me! To Xanadu!

Director Robert Greenwald's "Xanadu" (1980), a Universal picture, lit it up! To this day, the contrast between the grim Arctic weather we trudged through to get there and to get home in and the warm, inviting tones of this film is a fond memory. I was not a big Olivia Newton-John or Gene Kelly fan in those days, they were just popular stars like any others. But they dazzled this lost young man's eyes that night in Nowheresville, New York.

back cover of Xanadu 1980 soundtrack album
Back cover, soundtrack album
open interior gatefold of Xanadu 1980 soundtrack album
Inside sleeve of "Xanadu" soundtrack album.

This is high disco, with quite possibly the best soundtrack of all time. I'm not kidding, the songs in this film are simply unbelievably good (songwriter/producer John Farrar deserves a mention here). In fact, they are so good that they may have been part of the reason why the film had such trouble on its release - nothing could possibly fill the interludes between classic songs/videos like "Magic," "Xanadu," "Suddenly" and so on and hope to maintain the film's momentum. Show-stoppers, one after another.

Front cover of Xsnadu 1980 soundtrack album
Original soundtrack album to "Xanadu."

Olivia as Kira, a muse, is stunning, and the top singer of her time (if you ever meet a girl named Kira - and there are some - thank "Xanadu"). Olivia Newton-John had an endearing quality of innocence that perfectly matches her character, a muse who comes down from Heaven to help a struggling artist. It's the little things that she does so well, bumping into musical album cover designer Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) "accidentally" and then kissing him, rollerskating (no rollerblades yet, buddy!) down a street or alone around an abandoned warehouse, gamely dancing with wannabe-impresario Gene Kelly. Very nice, completely under-appreciated performance. She carries this film and does a terrific job.

Xanadu disco Xanadu 1980
The "Xanadu" disco.

Gene Kelly dances for the last time, and performs his part with dignity. It's a nice book-end to his career, which took off with the fabulous 1944 "Cover Girl," and he plays the same character as in that film (at his request). As a swan song for Gene Kelly, this is a terrific one. Just getting the chance to be in one last mega-musical was magical and almost a miracle, but he did it. The detractors can say whatever they want, but Gene Kelly somehow pulled it off.

Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck in Xanadu 1980
A cute couple in "Xanadu," Michael Beck and Olivia Newton-John.

Michael Beck was wildly miscast, though one can see what they were thinking. He portrays his character well enough, as a hunky "everyman" with unfulfilled dreams. He just did not have the chops to go toe-to-toe with either Olivia or Gene in the singing or dancing departments - and this is a musical! You just don't do that to someone, his weaknesses are just put on public display and completely undermine the presentation. He didn't have the skills and it shows throughout. By the end, he is reduced to adoring gazes as Olivia struts her stuff, and, while he does those as well as anyone possibly could, that isn't enough to save his character - and his character is really the whole point of the film! I will join the countless people who think Cliff Richard would have been perfect in the role, or even someone like (I'm dreaming here) John Travolta (who turned the role down), Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger or Elton John. Any plain (great but one-dimensional) actor couldn't help but get lost in the shuffle. The Sonny Malone character needed someone Special, a triple-threat to beat all triple-threats, a distinctive singing voice that could compete with Olivia. Unfortunately, such stars are very hard to find, then or now.

Gene Kelly playing clarinet Xanadu 1980
Gene on the clarinet to open "Xanadu."

I actually feel sorry for Beck. I know he had bitter feelings about this role, and probably still does. The debacle wasn't his fault; it would be like drafting Mickey Mantle to swim the 200-meter butterfly at the Olympics. Great guy, terrific at what he could do - but wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. He stands forlornly off to the side during the big production numbers, somewhat pathetically smiling at Olivia as she sings her heart out.

Gene Kelly Olivia Newton-John dancing Xanadu 1980
Gene can still dance, and Olivia keeps up nicely in "Xanadu."

Another problem with "Xanadu" was lack of preparation. That is deadly in almost every endeavor, and film-making is no exception. The production team had an idea, a concept, when filming began, and little more. During production, "Xanadu" turned from a small-budget disco rollerskate musical into something much more ambitious. That is NOT the way to make a film, ever, for any reason. The studio also wanted to rush this out, and it shows in weak special effects and some editing gone awry (the final version of "Xanadu" is endless). When you are writing the script each night before filming, you are taking an awful chance. Sometimes, fantastically, it works in "Xanadu," but sometimes it doesn't.

Xanadu 2007 Broadway musical
"Xanadu" was turned into a successful Broadway musical in 2007-2009, running for over 500 performances and snagging several awards (this was a bus shelter poster circa February 2009).

Overall, the results were mediocre. Gene Kelly's only comment after this came out was that "something is wrong with the way they make films these days." Classy gentleman, he just got caught up in a dead zone of the industry that passed quickly, but swallowed his last great effort whole. Despite that, Gene Kelly makes "Xanadu" his last, great triumph - because it is a triumph.

Olivia Newton-John Xanadu 1980
Olivia in her Ming-the Merciless outfit in "Xanadu."

There are other little touches that stand out more now than they did in 1980. One is a classic animation scene by legendary Don Bluth (which he later borrowed for "Thumbelina"), a classic "battle of the bands" scene, and the legendary "Xanadu" closing sequence where Olivia gets to show her full range and beauty. Every advantage, though, has a drawback. While making a disco musical was clever, the worst thing about this film was its timing. "Xanadu" came out just when Disco was dying. It represents the last and greatest of all the disco movies (Donna Summers' "Thank God it's Friday" being probably the next best one, which isn't saying much). But "Xanadu" isn't just a jerry-built film built around a night at a disco like "TGIF," it is a real story, with real character and real resolution. This film came out just a little too late and quite didn't synch with its time. Thus, it gets dragged down by association with the dying Disco era, and that's a shame, because it is one of the brightest, most colorful, and sonically pleasing films you might ever see. "Xanadu" is a genuine throwback that somehow marries classic musicals and the coming anti-musical 1980s and does so in a glorious, unapologetic fashion. That, incidentally, was largely Gene Kelly's influence, as he came up with the famous dance sequence with Olivia.

Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly Xanadu
Kira returning to Danny, still dressed in her WWII uniform, in "Xanadu."

You have to be in the mood. This is upbeat, lighthearted, completely family friendly (yes, unbelievably), and over-the-top in its excesses. Are you up for that? Then, watch it!

Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, Michael Beck
The three leads - Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly, and Michael Beck - happy here in "Xanadu."

Yes, I recommend "Xanadu" very highly, but only if you like something off-beat, something lively, something colorful. Call it cheesy, call it what you will, but try and give "Xanadu" a chance, just once. "Xanadu" ranks No. 1 on my list of guilty pleasures.


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