I realised the other day that I haven’t watched too many musicals this year. Musicals used to be the pinnacle; the jewel in the Hollywood crown. Arthur Freed, Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly, these names were spoken of with the same reverence reserved now for your Steven Spielbergs and Christopher Nolans. And when was this Golden Age of the musicals? The thirties, forties and fifties. Times of depression, war, massive upheaval. But inside a musical the world is better. People fall in love, they dance, they can’t help but sing their troubles away. When the real world is turning to shit, that’s when we need the escapism that musicals can provide. There have been sporadic bursts of life from this oft-maligned genre since then of course, but if you hold up a studio balance sheet next to a history book, guess what you see? And where are we these days? Wars, recessions, massive upheaval… So I figured I’d watch a musical today.
Miiiiiiichaellllllllll! Come out to plaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!
Sonny is a struggling artist is about to give up on his dream and go back to the daily grind of painting blow-ups of album covers for a record label. One fine day, out of the blue, he meets a beautiful woman on roller skates who kisses him and disappears without a word. Instantly smitten, he resolves to find her and see who she is. While exploring the LA beaches he meets Danny, a musician whose big band days are only a memory. The two share a love of music and become fast friends. As the day goes on, Michael keeps crossing paths with the same beautiful woman. It turns out her name is Kira, and she is one of the nine Muses of ancient Greek mythology. Daughter of Zeus, the whole bit. It’s best not to question this part too much. Anyway, the inspiration she provides Michael leads him and Danny to start up a roller disco nightclub they call Xanadu, but will Michael be able to be with Kira once daddy calls her back home?
As anyone who read my Documentary Saturday column on the Walmart movie will know, Xanadu was directed by Robert Greenwald. This movie was the inspiration for John Wilson to create the anti-Oscars known as the Razzies and, probably not coincidentally, Greenwald won the first Razzie for Worst Director. Frankly, he deserved it. I haven’t quite seen every movie from 1980 (I was otherwise occupied with being born at the time) but I find it hard to imagine that anyone did a worse job. The musical numbers in particular are shot with such a lack of inspiration that it actually makes the film worse than it could have been. There is the occasional overhead Berkeley homage, but other than that it seems that Greenwald shot most of the dances by corralling a spare skater and handing them the camera. There’s plenty of motion and energy, but you don’t really get to see anything aside from what’s right in front of you; the scenes are set up to have depth but the cameras can’t see over whoever happens to be whooshing by. The script and the performances are patchy at best. Michael Beck was one of the highlights of 1979’s The Warriors, but just one year later he does this. He plays Sonny as a petulant child in a grown-up’s body; a man who quit a job he hated to go off and live his dream as an artist, only to give up and go crawling back to his old boss, then spending every day at work bitching and moaning about how the job is beneath him. Also, shouldn’t the male lead in a musical have at least one song, and be able to dance? I have no idea if Beck can sing or dance because he doesn’t do either through the whole movie. He does skate around a little, but he doesn’t look particularly comfortable doing it.
Watching this film, it feels as if the typical male lead part has actually been split in two. Beck’s Sonny gets the romance part while Gene Kelly does the dancing half, with a bit of a song thrown in for good measure. This was Kelly’s final role on the big screen after a frankly spectacular career. He does his usual sterling job, also serving as co-choreographer, but the film itself is hardly a fitting tribute. I can’t help wondering how different it would have been if Sonny had been binned and Danny was the lead, and if Gene had directed the flick as well. If only…
As Kira the muse, Olivia Newton-John doesn’t really have much to do except smile, be pretty and have fabulous hair while mostly wearing roller skates. Admittedly, this is playing to her strengths, but the character is so flat and unexciting. Her one scene that even pretends to have any dramatic weight is near the end when she is trying to persuade the disembodied voices of her parents Zeus and Mnemosyne that she and Sonny love each other and that she wants to return to the mortal plane so they can be together. I can’t speak for Zeus, but I wasn’t convinced. The cartoon version of Kira in Don Bluth’s oddly placed animated sequence does more believable emoting.
I suppose I could go off on a rant about the “special” effects (they suck) or the costume design (two words: spandex and legwarmers) or the carefully defined layers of subtext and allusion (huh?) but the term “flogging a dead horse” springs to mind. This was 1980; you know what to expect. The film is so very much of its time that it hurts. You all laugh at the eighties now (especially if you weren’t even around to see them) but at the time, they were fantastic. With the exception of the songs, however – nobody disses ELO in my presence and lives to tell of it – by any quantifiable measure, this flick is truly awful. It may be cheesy, it may be as camp as a row of pink tents, but despite that – or maybe even because of it – I loved it. The world is a shinier place with Xanadu in it. Sometimes, that’s all the excuse you need.
Here’s something fun* I thought I’d leave you with. Fancy a bit of a historical noodle-scrambler? Xanadu is a loose remake of the movie Down To Earth from 1947, which was the sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), which was based on a play called Heaven Can Wait. Mr. Jordan was remade in 1978 under its original title Heaven Can Wait, and remade again in 2001, this time called Down To Earth. The 1947 Down To Earth starred Rita Hayworth as Terpsichore – the real name of the muse calling herself Kira in Xanadu. Three years before Down To Earth, Rita Hayworth played the lead in a movie called Cover Girl opposite Gene Kelly as Danny McGuire, the same role he played again 36 years later. In Xanadu.
*Remember, fun is a subjective term.