Guilty Pleasures Part II

July 09, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

If you conduct an on-line search for one particular word, you will get an amazing array of responses. It's the "Orginal Hypertex Project." It's a language and translation wizard. It's a swingers club in Manchester. It's an undersea adventure company. It's Charles Foster Kane's fortress. It's Kubla Khan's pleasure dome. And it's a 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. For the purposes of this column, it's to the last one that I refer. The word is "Xanadu."

"Cheesy" doesn't even begin to describe this motion picture, which was once voted in some poll as the worst musical of all time. (Obvious hyperbole - the participants couldn't have seen Zero Patience.) To say that the movie has not aged well is to understate matters. It is marooned in the 1970s. Even when it was released in 1980, it seemed outdated. Yet that's part of its perverse charm.

Xanadu cannot be watched with anything resembling a serious mindset. Enjoy it for its garishness. Enjoy it for its silliness. Enjoy it for the soundtrack (the product of John Farrar and ELO). But, most of all, enjoy it for Olivia Newton-John. She may not be the greatest actress of her generation, but she's gorgeous, and she has a great singing voice. Watching her in this, her second best-known role (after Grease), it's almost possible to believe that she is a Muse sent by Zeus.

Not to forget Gene Kelly... Some have lamented that this represents Kelly's farewell to feature films. (After Xanadu, he appeared in only a couple of TV mini-series.) But the venerable song-and-dance man "got" the movie. It was a throwback to his bread-and-butter - an attempt to re-create '50s musicals in the early '80s (a marriage between disco and retro). Not a good one, to be sure, but it gave Kelly an opportunity to do what he was best at, even at age 68. It always brings a smile to my face to see him show a few moves, even amidst all the corniness.

I have heard that Xanadu is popular in the gay culture, which doesn't surprise me. The film has the kind of flair that would make it a hit among those who delight in kitsch. It also appeals to those with a soft spot for really bad movies. The acting (especially by Andy Gibb-lookalike Michael Beck) is awful, the storyline is too moronic to be called trite, and the set decorations appear to have been designed by someone who was experiencing and LSD flashback. Yet, there's fun to be had for anyone who likes the music (which I do). This is, after all, a musical, and the stench of ripe cheese can be set aside if it offers pleasure to the palate.

Xanadu bombed at the box office - deservedly and expectedly so. But the soundtrack soared. Of its ten tracks, two ("Magic" and "Xanadu") were hits. Two more ("Suddenly" and "Don't Walk Away") got significant airplay. In my experience, it's almost unheard of for a movie soundtrack to dominate radio airwaves long after the film has been buried.

Xanadu was not embraced until long after its initial disgrace, although no one has ever given it credit as being more than it is. As with King Kong, I would not label this as a "good" movie, but I own the DVD and enjoy watching it. As guilty pleasures go, this is among the guiltiest. Until now, I was a closet Xanadu aficionado, but now that it's out in the open, I have no choice but to own up to it. But I have no plans to write a formal review. On my review scale, it would get a recommendation - three stars out of four - and I can't quite bring myself to do that. My credibilty, such as it is, would be seriously damaged.