Film Torments: Xanadu (1980)
HELLO and welcome, ladies and gentlemen, one and all, to a putting on of the Ritz. The theme for this Film Torments month of Musical May is… yeah. It’s Musical May at SCM, and we’ll be looking down our noses at some of the most offensive bum notes to blight our ears. Here’s the first one off-Broadway: Xanadu.
There aren’t many films that can be credited with actually killing off a decade. Road House killed the 80s, Battlefield Earth killed the 90s and Olivia Newton-John star-vehicle Xanadu decisively slaughtered the 70s. It’s a garish, neon-bloated vaudeville show; a thinly-plotted veil draped over confusing dance routines and uninspired songs that uses camp pleasantries to disguise a muddled production written on-the-fly.
Originally conceived as a low-budget roller-disco film in the vein of Skatetown, U.S.A. and that one scene in Heaven’s Gate, the overly-budgeted Xanadu follows Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), an incredibly ungrateful artist who doesn’t play by the rules. Tired of reproducing album covers on a larger scale for promotional material, he encounters literal and figurative Muse Kira (Newton-John), who gets his creative jimmies rustled.
He then meets Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly in his final film role), a Glenn Miller sideman perennially living in a past of unspoken tragedy who was also inspired by Kira’s legwarmers. Together, they decide to found a nightclub combining the musical stylings of the 40s and 80s. They call it Xanadu, because that was in a poem McGuire read one time and thought was good.
Well, okay, it doesn’t really have a plot. Calling Xanadu insubstantial is giving it too much credit. It’s an effervescent cloud of whimsy, wafting through poorly-lit set-pieces and rigid dialogues, never forming a complete whole. I’m not even sure it follows a structure of traditional acts, since everything floats along so aimlessly it’s difficult to pinpoint a conflict or a resolution, never mind rising action.
Newton-John has stated that the constant rewrites of the script disrupted the production; if the central premise had always been so flimsy, I doubt any amount of rewrites could have saved it. The acting isn’t great shakes either. Michael Beck delivers his lines with the exquisite flatness of a decarbonated fizzy drink, often speaking with the urgent intonation of a man asking for his change in a supermarket. Then again, I suppose it’s difficult for any actor to say something like, “Tuesday’s Wednesday,” with anything approaching emotional resonance.
The sheer indignity of watching Beck – wearing an indescribably horrendous shirt, short shorts and a mullet – rollerblade down the boulevard with socks on to the sound of ELO is a film in itself. He only vaguely comes alive when he rebels against the corporate beard of company executive Simpson (James Sloyan), who says the word “shit” in various combinations and little else.
His chemistry with Newton-John is non-existent. She, meanwhile, treats the film exactly as it should be treated, all bulging eyes and Hollywood smiles and jazz hands, even when awkwardly roller-skating around the world’s most dangerous recording studio. Said studio stimulates artistic inspiration with pop-up palm trees, murals of beaches and showering its musicians with rainwater, presumably while they play electric instruments. It also features what I can only describe as a 20-foot Dalek.
Gene Kelly, god bless him, has the chiselled smile of a man who only half-remembers the fact he made Singin’ in the Rain. It’s hard to believe he still exudes such charm in a film as stiff and lifeless as this, but he lends McGuire regretful pathos, even as he’s forced to play an invisible clarinet – in an empty room – with an exuberance bordering on insanity. This scene leads to one of the sweetest moments, where Kelly and Newton-John tap dance during a duet.
It’s one of the few dance sequences that we can actually bloody see. Kenny Ortega and Jerry Trent’s choreography – though often cluttered with too many distracting peripheral dancers – is fine in itself; the problem is with Victor Kemper’s camerawork. Many shots are filmed in close-ups or mid-distance, meaning we can’t see the performers’ full movements. When we do see them, the editing is so lopsided and awkward we’re thrown for a loop. The dancing is too elaborate and large-scale for its own good, buckling under the weight of having too many performers.
Take the scene where Malone and McGuire visit the derelict site for the Xanadu club. Malone monotones, “It’s the Eighties!”, and for once we agree as ELO starts playing in front of him, conjured from the neon recesses of his psyche. McGuire, meanwhile, imagines a lavish, 40s-inflected doo-wop extravaganza. The purpose of this sequence is to illustrate the generational gap between Malone and McGuire and their eventual converging into what will become Xanadu, but the dancing is so chaotic there’s nothing to focus on.
The same goes for the ending, which depicts Xanadu as something eerily close to a roller-skating cult, populated entirely by pop-culture stereotypes (bootleggers, wartime, yuppies) screaming “Xanadu!” and crossing their arms like a fascist salute. We wonder what purpose these dances and the songs attached to them serve, but then we realise they don’t serve a purpose – they’re wasting our time until the credits roll. When Newton-John appears for a climactic medley of wardrobe changes, we just want the damn thing to end.
They do manage to squeeze in a non-sequitur animated scene, directed by Don Bluth of Anastasia and Land Before Time fame (one he would later recycle for Thumbelina). It’s a gorgeous, fluidly animated breath of fresh air from the stiff dialogue and indulgent dancing that peppers the rest of the film.
The soundtrack is the only other credible success, which is encouraging for a musical. Headed up by ELO and Newton-John, the album was a huge double-platinum hit, much unlike the film it was attached to. It’s a collection of ELO disco bombast and Newton-John balladeering – the best of both worlds – that lose much of their dazzle in the film. Newton-John’s tracks are especially under-served, with most of them being delivered through voice-over while she either roller-skates or stands around.
If nothing else, Xanadu is simply faboo. It’s all sparkly cheese and neon tapers, a harmless camp vision that resulted in a Broadway musical that, apparently, wasn’t awful. For all its epileptic-unfriendly special effects, horrendous screen transitions and legwarmer-led ensembles, it’s a harmlessly earnest film that, if nothing else, served as the catalyst for the creation of the Razzie Awards (for better or worse). “Tuesday’s Wednesday,” after all.