Tuesday, November 10, 2015


It was supposed to be the next Tommy or Grease. Instead, it was more like... fuck, it's not like anything. It's 80s roller disco 40s retro mythology clusterbang. It's Xanadu.
So, we open with a mural of the Nine Muses somewhere on Venice Beach springing to life. They all dance, then fly off into various directions in a a streak of neon and legwarmers.

Which begs the question: Where the hell did the other eight Muses go? Did Thalia fly away with a kilo under each arm to help with Stir Crazy and The Blues Brothers? Did Urania flit off to get high with Carl Sagan and inspire Cosmos? Was it Euterpe or Calliope who headed for the Sunset Strip to rock out on the lyre with Eddie Van  Halen? And, my word, which of these poor lasses wound up with Roman Polanski? One of them was played by Sibyl Danning, which means she apparently flitted off to inspire Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, both for good and ill...
Olivia Newton-John is Terpsichore, the muse of dance, given to saying things like "Shakespeare's written sonnets about us. Beethoven's composed music for us. We're  not supposed to feel emotions... Wait! Doesn't anybody care about my feelings?" She rollerglides down the Venice boardwalk in search of a hot dog, a nickel bag or someone she can inspire into opening a nightclub with a nice big dance floor.
... which she finds in one Sonny Malone, a frustrated painter. (Don't ask why a singer is playing a deity of the dance who is inspiring a painter. Mythological sloppiness is to be expected in the movies.) Sonny himself is an artisan of a time long past. A time when, if you wanted an 8x8 foot version of your album cover to hang outside of Tower Records, you had to hire some guy to paint it by hand. And there was still a Tower on Sunset to hang it in front of. And record labels to pay for it all.
Sonny Malone is played by Michael Beck. And this was another reason Xanadu should have gone well: Beck was fresh off of his role as Swann, the war chief of The Warriors. "Whatever happened to that guy?" you've wondered.  And, well, what happened was Xanadu. Now, Xanadu has a sort of epic badness that can be truly entertaining but somehow I doubt that the idea was “I’m gonna make two movies that are total bewildering, facepalming flops that will one day be admired for, well, their facepalming badness.” The sad thing is that Xanadu is not the worst of the pair. That would be Megaforce, which involved Beck and Barry Bostwick cruising around the desert (actually Henderson) on quads wearing silver spandex jumpsuits.

When he’s being the surly artist, he’s pretty good. When he’s debating the nature of dreams with Gene Kelly, he’s okay. But any time he’s interacting with Olivia Newton-John or wearing dolfin shorts and conversing with Zeus in a neon minefield, he’s fucking awful--although who wouldn't be awful doing those things? They should've gotten Gregory Hines, which would at least has left us with some astonishing dance scenes. Or Richard Gere, who would have at least been fun to look at.
As for Miss Olivia Newton-John, well, she’s game, she tries, but she’s not much good. Especially when you consider that Xanadu bascially jacks its plot from the far superior Down to Earth, starring the truly godesslike Rita Hayworth as a Terpsichore who actually could dance supremely well. It also cribs a little from One Touch of Venus, which starred Ava Gardner, 'nuff said. Newton-John is pleasant and pretty but she's not much of a dancer--not next to Kelly, not that anyone ever could be. (Okay, okay, Fred Astaire, the Nichols Brothers, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell, Hayworth. Or if you wanna go new school, Michael Jackson or Savion Glover. Anyway…) But she is at least essential to the soundtrack. In the movie... she mostly she just has to look pretty and rollerskate through dry ice.
Oh lordy. I had those barrettes. A few sets. I made them with plain ol' goldtone Goodys, two colors of satin baby ribbon and a few beads on the end if you're fancy.
After he's been kissed by a Newton-John and bitches about his lack of inspiration and how no one appreciates his talent and the man hassles him, Sonny meets Gene Kelly. Kelly is wearing a porkpie hat and playing clarinet while sitting on the beach. Kelly still carries himself like a prince. He's a bored, rich ex-jazz musician--wait, rich ex-jazz musician? the film at least has the decency to explain that he invested in real estate with his jazz musician money... or something.
So he agrees to partner up with  Sonny to open a nightclub. Because people just really dig Sonny. Chicks loan Sonny their mopeds, some dude lets him hitch a rollerskate ride on the back of his amazing bus (now that i think of it, so did Steve Gutenberg in Can't Stop the Music) and generally has everyone sitting around talking about how fucking awesome he is. I will not comment how Sonny's proclivity for dolfin shorts and financial reliance on a much older man with bespoke suits and real-estate holdings seems, well...
The scene where they both describe--and, in the world of Xanadu, thus enact--their respective visions of the club is one of the moments in the movie that actually works, in a weird way. Kelly's swinging' Bette Midler/Manhattan Transfer/Kid Creole vision of the 40s melds with Beck's shoulder pads/jumpsuits & synths version of the 80s, as enacted by the Tubes. It's basically a mash-up long before such things had a name.
The, back in the realm of horror, they also have a makeover scene with Gene Kelly, where he tries on a bunch of outfits. At Fiorucci. And then it become a big dance scene. And roller boogie scene. And it's ELO. Excuse me: I need to sit down.
During "Suspended in Time," Olivia sings a powerless ballad in some kind of Tron space mid-shot. No one can endure that treatment: Frank Sinatra barely survived in in The Tender Trap--the protracted mid-shot, not the Tron part. And then there's "Suddenly," which is basically just the audience having to sit through three minutes of "Couples skate only!" I assume that it was part of the contract that every. Single. Song. on the soundtrack be played in. Its. Entirety. Because five minutes out of every ten, Xanadu stops stone dead while an ELO song plays. They even resort to a bizarre animated sequence to find yet another way for Olivia and Sonny to stare soulfully at each other while Jeff Lynne warbles in the background.
Some bullshit about how Olivia is a muse and has to return to Olympus but she loves Sonny but Zeus says no but Hera says okay and Zeus says maybe, who gives a shit, isn't it time for happy hour yet...?
So the club opens. There's a montage of Hopper cocktail waitresses and Nagel go-go girls roller skating in circles to marching-band drums and disco war chants. The Olivia returns for an absolutely bombastic and completely mediocre musical number whose sole raison d' etre seems to be costume changes and genre changes, none of which amount to anything. Not the tiger-striped vinyl, not the fringed white cowgirl, not the beaded headdress and Flash Gordon knockoff, none of it...
Apparently it was a double bill of Xanadu and Can't Stop the Music that inspired the creation of the Razzie Awards.
I recall when this movie came out, the anticipation was huge. I remember sitting around the elementary school cafeteria table while a friend who had finally Seen. It. As soon as we set down our trays and popped open our lunchboxes, we eagerly asked her how it was. "Well [long pause] I liked all of the colors." She did not lack for opinions on other matters, so it became clear that Xanadu was not that all that we had been promised....


  1. HI! I just discovered your blog today via Culture Sonar and so far I'm really loving your spot-on observations of train wreck masterpieces. If you don't mind my adding to your comments about the Muses in Xanadu, note that Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian fame was one of the muses.