Adventures in Cheese, Part 1: Xanadu

Xanadu is glorious and awful in ways that defy comprehension. Look ye on its trailer and despair:

It’s hard to know quite where to begin.

The first problem with this film is that its ambitions and resources apparently far outstripped the ability of anyone connected with it to wrangle the mess into a coherent whole. It is, really, three very different movies stuck haphazardly together: a very gentle tribute to the marvelous Gene Kelly*, a disco-style vehicle for Olivia Newton-John (post-Grease), and an extended music video for ELO. How the hell poor Michael Beck landed in the middle of this thing after his star turn in The Warriors I cannot fathom. This movie loves its past, but doesn’t really understand what to do with it. The shallow madness of the 80s runs smack up against the 30s-50s and freaks the fuck out. Xanadu is the unholy bastard child of Saturday Night Fever and Summer Stock, assuming either or both of those films were directed by someone who got his start as a key grip on Godspell and always wanted to somehow combine the Tom and Jerry bits of Anchors Aweigh with the shape-shifting montage from The Sword in the Stone.

The thing laughably called a “plot” here is mostly an excuse to find a way to put Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly in the same musical without subsuming her disco-era image in his much older musical aesthetic. A Muse comes down to inspire (Kira, AKA Terpsichore, AKA Ollie Ollie Ol N-Jo), wackiness ensues, and it all ends up in a crazy-ass roller rink full of neon and Soul Train dancers. For some reason, they didn’t just have her show up to help cheer up ol’ Gene Kelly (in his last starring role in a big-screen musical). No, they needed a young romantic lead to bring the Grease fans to the theatre. Boy meets Muse, they get jiggy with it, they face a patently artificial obstacle to their love that is easily overcome, and BOOM, Happy Disco Ever After.**

Imagine the conversation, if you will, that brought us Michael Beck‘s presence in this film:

A: Who should it be? We’d love to get Travolta, but he’s not interested. We need someone edgy, someone artsy, someone sexy…

B: I know! What about that guy who was so hot in that Walter Hill movie about gangs and shit? YEAH! He can handle clowns and weirdness, surely he can roll with disco!

A: Can he sing? I mean, is he musical at all? Does he even DO comedy?

B: You didn’t think The Warriors was funny? With, like, the baseball clown guys?

C: You guys are missing the most important question: does he own roller skates?***

and then MAGIC happened.


The music obviously has Jeff Lynne’s MOOGy mitts all over it, and it does actually sound surprisingly good, although quite a bit of the score doesn’t age well (mostly because it seems to be trying too hard to make disco dance with Broadway flair and loses something of both in the process). In its best moments, it’s beautiful. It doesn’t sit together too well as a musical, but a part of that might be the 80s conventions overwhelming the rhythms and sensibilities of the classic musical that the director seemed to want to revive. An ongoing theme of the film is an attempt to marry present and past, and, well…it doesn’t quite succeed, but the earnestness of the attempt is sweet. That may, perhaps, be the key to what goes wrong and what goes right in this movie — it never seems to know how best to balance past and present, and often chooses the wrong bits of each to meld together. The script, to be honest, does no one any favors, as it demands a kind of acting style that Kelly does very well, that Newton-John can fake more or less convincingly, and that Beck is ill equipped to do (he’s obviously at home in a more naturalistic, gritty style).

Just the same, there is something genuinely delightful here. Xanadu‘s heart is in the right place (if never quite in the right time). Gene Kelly couldn’t fail to be charming if he tried, and the songs are fun even when they are at their silliest. The neon sensibility of the thing is done as well as it could be, and the roller skating is…well, OK, there’s really no reason on earth for this much roller skating. It’s the 80s, bitches — WE SKATE! There is also an honest message at the heart of this story about what it means to desire and to make real art, and to be affected by it in turn as its audience. It’s the impulse at the heart of every “hey, guys, let’s put on a show!” tale — the ultimate joy of creating something, and the wonder of sharing that joy with others.

Ignore the neon for a moment. Tune out Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck and Jeff Lynne. Look at Gene Kelly’s face when he dances, when he skates, when he just moves through a scene, surrounded by silliness, and makes it all somehow more real than it deserves to be, and you’ll get what makes this musical absolutely lovable.

*Disclaimer: I must note that Gene Kelly was probably my first celebrity crush. He is dreamy and I luuurrrrve him to this day. I will hear no ill spoken of his tight-pantsed control-freak dancing ass, and that’s final. Every time that man smiled on screen, Xanadu became an entirely different film. Also: in spite of the need of the story to take him to a “Franchise Glitz Dealer,” the dude totally rocked a seersucker suit. ROCKED it.

**We will, for the moment, ignore the fact that Gene Kelly is the actual romantic lead  — the script  makes the Muse Kira his ex from years and years ago.Yes.


The rest of the series, if you’re so inclined:

Rock & Rule
Streets of Fire
Absolute Beginners

About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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