Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 17 August 2011
Source Universal DVD
I’m no good at liking things ironically. I’ve tried it, but I inevitably get it wrong. What was meant to be a kind of distant, tongue-in-cheek appreciation becomes genuine affection, and liking things ironically just becomes, well—liking things. So when I say that I like Xanadu, the infamous creampuff of a musical that helped inspire John Wilson to found the Razzie Awards in 1980, I mean that, hand over my heart and not hovering to form air quotes around the word “like,” I actually like Xanadu. I’d called it a guilty pleasure, but really? Life is complicated enough without anyone having to feel guilty about enjoying a movie in which one of the stars of Grease rollerskates around and serenades that dude from The Warriors.
Released thirty-one years ago this month, Xanadu received a famous critical drubbing when it debuted, a response typified by Esquire’s withering one-word putdown: “Xanadon’t.” The film has noticeably risen in public affections since, aided by a surprise cult following and a knowing, gently parodic Broadway adaptation that premiered in 2007. It probably helps that we’re removed from the film’s initial hype as well as the anti-disco backlash that hastened its critical and box office demise. It now seems that one of Xanadu’s greatest crimes in 1980 was being terribly unfashionable.
Which is not to say that there aren’t quite a few – let’s call them issues – with the film, because there undoubtedly are. In “Going Back to Xanadu,” a short documentary supplement included on a recent special edition DVD, the film’s director (and latter day crusading documentarian) Robert Greenwald recalls: “I remember very clearly getting a script. It was like 45 pages. It was very weak, to be polite about it, and I said, ‘Well, I guess they’re gonna fix it.’” Later he adds, “The script never got fixed. It became longer than 45 pages, but it never got fixed.” To wit, Xanadu rarely busies itself with any attempts to create complicated or believable characters or relationships, or to generate conflicts that can’t be solved over the course of a sway-inducing light rock tune. (Most musicals trade in heightened emotions and allow big leaps in plot and character to be made over the course of a song, but Xanadu could be said to abuse the privilege.)
The story, which was freely adapted from the lightweight 1947 Rita Hayworth film Down to Earth, gives us Olivia Newton-John as Kira, a legwarmer-wearing muse who springs to life from a Venice Beach mural in order to inspire Michael Beck’s Sonny, a struggling artist who is losing faith in himself. (We know Sonny is losing faith in himself because when the movie opens, he is tearing up his artwork and telling no one in particular that, “Guys like me shouldn’t dream anyway.”) Sonny is frustrated by his day job, which, as soul-crushing day jobs go, isn’t actually all that bad: he paints large copies of album covers to hang outside a local record store. Sonny quits that gig after Kira inspires him to take on a new artistic venture – opening a roller disco called Xanadu. All of this is offered up with the sweetest sincerity, as if running a faddish nightspot really could be the path to artistic to fulfillment, as if having a roller disco all your own was the surest path to happiness in the late twentieth century.
And I think that’s why I like this movie the way I do. Because Xanadu is a ridiculous movie that doesn’t find itself, or anything else, ridiculous. Xanadu is aggressively in favor of self-expression and the pursuit of dreams, and it doesn’t really allow for the possibility that someone’s dream could be kind of stupid, or that their art could be kind of bad. It exudes a naive, confident charm, that is – weirdly – downright inspiring. Xanadu is also never boring, for though it lacks traditional dramatic tension, it generates interest by being so inherently bizarre, whether it’s launching into a Don Bluth animated sequence just because it can, or it’s giving us a scene of Sonny contemplating skating face-first into a wall in order to find his missing muse.
The film always means well, never more so then when it attempts to incorporate Old Hollywood glamour into its world of Day Glo chic. It announces this mission early, opening with a tweaked version of the old school Universal Studios logo, the one that begins with an airplane circling the Earth. (The Xanadu version works its way up to a spacecraft circling the planet instead, suggesting a fusion of the nostalgic and the futuristic.) But the biggest nod to Old Hollywood is of course the casting of Gene Kelly as Danny McGuire, a former jazz clarinetist who abandoned his music in favor of the family construction business decades ago. (Danny’s name is of course a nod to Kelly’s breakthrough role in 1944’s Cover Girl, which also starred one Rita Hayworth.) Xanadu marked Kelly’s last big screen appearance as an actor, though he did appear as himself in the final installment of That’s Entertainment! in 1994. A widower and single father in 1980, Kelly took the role in Xanadu in part because shooting was close to his family and his home. He reportedly didn’t care much for the final product.
It would be easy to knock Xanadu for lacking the grace of Kelly’s best films at MGM, and therefore offering him an unsuitable career send-off, but I’m enough of a musical fanatic to know that MGM had its share of Xanadu-like oddities. (1945’s Ziegfeld Follies, a star-heavy showcase that includes Lucille Ball preening around in pink feathers and Cyd Charisse nearly being smothered by a mass of soap bubbles, springs to mind.) Besides, Kelly (who was sixty-eight at the time of the film’s release) shares a rather lovely pas de deux with Newton-John, and the silly outfits he wears during the film’s misguided “fashion show” montage aren’t much sillier than some of the things he sports in The Pirate or Summer Stock or the “Broadway Melody Ballet” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain.
It’s true that Xanadu never really lands the lost Hollywood elegance that it seeks. But as it happens, the high one gets from watching Xanadu with a group of friends isn’t entirely dissimilar to the high generated by a more conventionally successful musical comedy. In the “Going Back to Xanadu” documentary, dance instructor and fan Ken Anderson says, “There’s something excessive about the movie that gets you into a place of giddiness. It’s like a drug.” He adds that Xanadu was the movie that led him to pursue dance as a career, confessing, “I wish it were a more profound film that did it.” But the most profound films are not necessarily the only ones that end up meaning something to us. And I for one think that’s not only okay, but actually pretty cool. As viewers, and as people, we aren’t just defined by that movie that we’re proud to call our favorite, by that Best Picture winner that we predicted or by that cool indie that we found first. We’re defined by the pictures that we love far more than we should, the ones that make us tap our feet or laugh when we think no one is looking.