Thursday, August 2, 2012

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

Xanadu 1980 original movie poster
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!
"Xanadu" (1980), directed by Robert Greenwald for Universal, 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 startles me. I was not a big Olivia Newton-John or Gene 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 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
Olivia was stunning, and she was the top singer of her time. She 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 co-star Michael Beck "accidentally" and then kissing him, rollerskating (no rollerblades yet, buddy!) down a street or alone around an abandoned warehouse, gamely dancing with Gene Kellly. 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. As a swan song, 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, and the detractors can say whatever they want, but he somehow pulled it off.
Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck in Xanadu 1980
A cute couple
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, Paul McCartney or Elton John. Any plain (great but one-dimensional) actor couldn't help but get lost in the shuffle. That character needed someone Special, a triple-threat to beat all triple-threats.
Gene Kelly playing clarinet Xanadu 1980
Gene on the clarinet

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

Another problem with the film was lack of preparation. That is deadly in almost every endeavor, and film-making is no exception. They had an idea when filming began, and little more. That is NOT the way to make a film, ever, for any reason. They wanted to rush this out, and it shows. When you are writing the script each night before filming, you are taking an awful chance. Sometimes, fantastically, it works. Here, 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.
Olivia Newton-John Xanadu 1980
Olivia in her Ming-the Merciless outfit
There is a classic animation scene, a classic "battle of the bands" scene, and the legendary "Xanadu" closing sequence where Olivia gets to show her full range and beauty. The worst thing about this film was its timing, coming out just when Disco was dying and as the last and greatest of all the disco movies ("Thank God it's Friday" being probably the next best one, which isn't saying much). But it 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 didn't synch with its time and gets dragged down by association, and that's a shame, because it is one of the brightest, most colorful, and sonically pleasing films you might ever see. It is a genuine throwback that somehow marries classic musicals and the coming anti-musical 1980s and does so in a glorious, unapologetic fashion.
Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly Xanadu
Olivia returning to Gene, still dressed in her WWII uniform

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, happy here

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

Below is a 1980 trailer and one from an Australian cable network:


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