Release Date: August 8, 1980
Runtime: 93 minutes
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Robert Greenwald
Cast: Olivia Newton-John; Gene Kelly; Michael Beck
Something about this movie draws me to it. I don’t know if it’s the fact that it was so viciously derided upon its initial release, whether it’s the tack, tack, TACKY sets and costumes, whether it’s the actually pretty likable music and “Solid Gold”-ish style dancing, or my strange obsession with the former Pan-Pacific Auditorium. Whatever the reason, I will always watch “Xanadu” with a smile…not because it’s good, but because it has a sincerity that is endearing in its naivety.
It’s not a question of whether or not Olivia Newton-John can act…she can’t. She barely pulled it off in “Grease.” Her acting (in)ability is not really the issue here. What is the issue is that she is a talented singer and (with the assistance of Electric Light Orchestra on most of the songs), creates some pretty catchy tunes. In fact, unlike the movie, the soundtrack for “Xanadu” was an enormous hit in 1980. The idea, however, of trying to mix the music of the 1940’s and 1980’s, while an interesting thought, isn’t executed particularly well. For example, the big number which is meant to physically merge the musical styles, including a big band-esque bandstand and a rock concert stage, should be an almost awe-inspiring sequence, but comes across looking as though it is being handled by some suburban high school.
There’s not much of a story here either. Based upon the 1947 Rita Hayworth vehicle “Down to Earth,” “Xanadu” updates the story for the disco age. Briefly, a disgruntled artist named Sonny (Michael Beck, who saw his career dry up almost as soon as it got wet) tears up a particularly frustrating piece of artwork he is working on and throws the pieces out the window. The torn pieces of paper eventually descend upon a back-alley mural painting of the Nine Muses, the Goddesses who, according to Greek mythology, inspired all creativity. Magically, the torn paper brings the mural to life and Muses start dancing and floating and what not all over the place. It’s all pretty cheesy by today’s standards, and probably by the standards of the 1980’s too. Anyway, long and short, Muse Kira (ONJ) rear-ends Sonny (on roller skates no less!) and inspires him to follow his heart and partner up with a washed-up clarinetist, Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly, in his final screen role), from the big band era, to open up a super-fabulous roller disco called Xanadu. Oh yeah…and the Muse falls in love with the human (although I’m not sure I understand why since both of them have the personality of a shoe).
Luckily for us, the audience, the music ain’t all that bad. I mean, you have to have at least a working enjoyment of disco music, Electric Light Orchestra, and lots and lots of synthesizers. You also have to not mind the rather horrific period costumes and garishly cheap sets. But beyond that, the dancing is fun to watch, even if the choreography is a bit muddled and all over the place. All the dancers obviously worked a hell of a lot harder than any of the actors, so at least they don’t disappoint.
So what is it that attracts me to “Xanadu”? The acting? No. The story? I don’t think that’s it. The dancing? Not on its own. Maybe it’s the simple fact that you can splash a lot of colors onto a canvas, but that doesn’t mean that the colors will necessarily blend.