Following up on my viewing of 1980’s The Jazz Singer, somehow a critical flop but a musical smash, I turned my attention to another similar phenomenon from the same year. 50’s throwback Grease had made the late Olivia Newton-John a global commodity, so finding another poptastic, retro-tinged musical vehicle for the Aussie singer was a holy grail for producers. The writer of iconic hit You’re The One That I Want was brought in to pen the choon Magic, which topped the charts around the world. Expectations were high that Xanadu would repeat the same trick as Grease and cement Newton-John as a movie star.
That kind of magic, famously, didn’t happen here, although Xanadu is a cult film these days, largely because it’s a melange of colourful ingredients that don’t quite gel, but are undeniably entertaining in their own right. Based on the plot of the 1940’s Rita Hayworth vehicle Down To Earth, Xanadu is set in LA’s funky Venice Beach, and sees young painter Sonny Malone (somehow Michael Beck from The Warriors and Megaforce) falling for Kira a beautiful roller-skater (Newton-John) who may or may not also be the goddess Persephone in mortal form. Things get complicated when Sonny teams up with Gene Kelly, pretty much playing himself but billed as Danny McGuire, who wiki describes as a ‘former big band orchestra leader turned construction mogul.’ Leaving that headspinning contrivance aside, Danny and Sonny decide to open an abandoned-art deco nightclub to lure Kira back to earth, leading to a roller-skating finale that….
I’ve been publishing reviews since the 80’s, but that’s one of the worst scenarios for a film I’ve ever attempted to translate from gibberish into English, and audiences not surprisingly shrugged and stayed away. But like the proverbial curate’s egg, parts of Xanadu really are excellent; Kelly has a neat old school dance routine, and there’s a fearsome proto mash-up of big band music and rock, featuring the song Dancin’ by The Tubes that is way ahead of its time. The main musical guests are the Electric Light Orchestra who contribute not only the winning title song, but also All Over The World, set in a department store with the mannequins coming to life.
A recent interview with one of the Tubes suggested that the film came about too early to catch the early 80’s MTV wave, and that assumption may well be correct; it’s certainly got several scenes that would jump out as lavish pop video fodder. I saw Xanadu on the BBC iPlayer as part of a tribute to Olivia Newton-John, but she doesn’t seem particularly comfortable with this ramshackle vehicle, and who can blame her? This may not be Xanadu as Orson Welles or Coleridge imagined it, but it you’re looking for a gaudy pleasuredome with Gene Kelly dancin’ to ELO, you’re absolutely welcome to this one. As the title song says, it takes your breath and it’ll leave you blind, and both of these things are entirely true of this incarnation of Xanadu. And yes, it can happen for you…