Xanadu, like the Dustin Hoffman/Warren Beatty vehicle Ishtar, is widely – and erroneously – remembered as a total failure of cinema, a flop among flops, an abject and dismal example of what Hollywood can accomplish, et cetera and so forth and et al. I went into Ishtar thinking that it would be awful and came out surprised to find that it was actually not that bad. Similarly, my preconceptions about Xanadu were that it would be entirely terrible, but when Netflix asked me my thoughts on the movie afterward, I couldn’t help but award it three stars (“Liked It”).
Perhaps part of the reason that the movie may seem so laughable to today’s audiences is that it is entirely a product of its time. Released at the tail end of the ’70s, Xanadu is a movie that has its main characters – including Gene Kelly! – on roller skates more often than they are not on roller skates. I couldn’t stop thinking, while watching our hero Sonny Malone skate despondently down the sidewalk, that this was an image that I will never see again. When Malone meets up with Kira, the daughter of Zeus, she is usually surrounded by a pink or yellow aura that seems as though it would be just as welcome in a laser light show. And though I have nothing but positive things to say about the soundtrack (primarily songs by Electric Light Orchestra), it is nonetheless very indicative of the time when the movie was created.
In addition to that, though, there are several moments that are just laughable regardless of what year it is. As Malone follows the ethereal Kira (Olivia Newton-John) on a motorbike, he accidentally drives off of a pier in an outlandish scene that reminded me strongly of the moment in Mac & Me where a handicapped child plunges off of a cliff. There’s a certain amount of pedophilic tension between Gene Kelly’s old man Danny McGuire, with his effusive kindness toward Malone and mysterious reappearances. And when Malone tells his dream-girl Kira that, as a painter for a record label, he only paints images that others tell him to, she notes that that must be depressing. “Yeah,” he responds succinctly.
But on the other hand, a lot of the soundtrack is made by Electric Light Orchestra, beginning with an awesome music video showing characters in a painting coming to life, complete with pink auras, to “I’m Alive”. These women – the Muses – then zoom around the city in flashes of light which, a product of a past era or not, are pretty awesome. Later, when the music club Xanadu officially opens, there are a multitude of crane shots which show the club’s brightly lit floor from above, a kaleidoscopic image that is stunning… especially in the face of the bizarre montage of musical styles that Newton-John employs while singing about how great Xanadu is, including an awkward few moments where she is positively country. But let’s not get hung up on that, though, because scenes fade into one another with a clicking row of gray bars, a strange choice that is both hilarious and intriguing. When things get bad, there’s always something positive to look toward.
Roger Ebert’s review of the film, written 31 years ago, mentions specifically a central moment where Malone and Danny McGuire imagine their fantasy version of Xanadu, a club which combines the best of the roaring ’40s and the super-hip ’80s to make something overwhelmingly exciting. Ebert’s review calls the dance sequence incomprehensible, the slow combination of the two musical styles little more than an awkward mish-mash that does not work. I disagree totally. The dance sequences here are remarkable, especially those from the ’40s segment, which include women being swung around and thrown up in the air at high speeds. When the two eras combine near the end of the scene, the two versions of the song contrast with each other beautifully, truly selling the combination of styles when it had been viewed as sharply divergent mere moments prior.
The over-riding narrative, wherein the protagonist Malone falls in love with the Muse Kira and begs her to remain with him, is lacking in punch. There are strong suggestions that Kira also existed as a woman in McGuire’s younger days as well, and in truth he pines after the woman that he let get away, but the love triangle between the three main characters is never developed. McGuire expresses that he recognizes the girl, but quickly lets the issue drop. Instead, the movie is more interested in providing a series of musical montages (usually involving roller skates, natch) where the characters sing to one another about their romantic feelings, rather than allowing the characters to actually interact with one another to sell their feelings. We are led to believe that Kira will not be able to return to Malone, who she has inconceivably fallen in love with, but when she arrives back on Earth her appearance is during a music/dance scene. When she reunites with her love, it’s not with surprise or excitement because the choreographed dance sequence does not allow them to share a personal moment.
I know I keep returning to the things that don’t work in the film, but really a lot of Xanadu just isn’t that bad. The majority of the dance/music sequences, even if they don’t work as well in terms of the narrative, are nonetheless enjoyable visually and catchy aurally. The visual effects employed within the movie, though childish by today’s standards, are exciting for 1980. I found myself wondering how they were produced at that time – did the filmmakers utilize hand-drawn animation to produce a fluid pink outline to the Muses, or was it produced in some other manner? There is a shocking lack of chemistry between the three leads, but on their own each is quite likable… especially Gene Kelly. It made me eager for next month’s MCT Live viewing of Singin’ in the Rain. The dance sequence with Kelly and Newton-John, though reportedly added at the last minute, is among the most engaging moments of the entire film.
I guess I wouldn’t take sides if an argument broke out about Xanadu‘s worth as a film. It’s probably not a good movie. But rumor has it that this movie is one of the titles which inspired the infamous Razzie awards (given to the worst films of the year), a distinction which I feel is entirely unfair. There are much lower depths that film, as a whole, can sink than Xanadu.