Xanadu (United States, 1980)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

How, one might ask, does one begin to defend Xanadu? To start with, by looking at it without any pretensions and seeing it for what it is. Conventional wisdom decrees that Xanadu is a horrible film. In a sense, conventional wisdom may be correct, but it ignores one key ingredient: viewed in the right frame of mind, this movie can be a lot of fun. Age has done for Xanadu what it has done for many critically reviled motion pictures that time has not forgotten: allowed us to look at it a little more kindly and appreciate it for its glorious badness. The film is too energetic, too jaw-droppingly campy, and too silly not to be enjoyed and celebrated on some level. "Cheesy" doesn't even begin to describe it, yet that's at the heart of its perverse charm. Now, that's entertainment!

Officially, I consider Xanadu to be a guilty pleasure. "Guilty," because no self-respecting film critic in his right mind would admit to liking it, and "pleasure," because I do like it. Over the quarter century since its 1980 release, Xanadu has developed a cult following and has made more than twice the amount of money on home video that it captured at the box office. The film is often referred to as a flop, but that's not entirely accurate. While it's true that it didn't make back its $20 million budget on the big screen, the numbers aren't as bad as some think them to be. For example, during its opening weekend, it made $1.5 million. That's not a lot, but converting it to a modern day opening, it looks better. Average ticket prices today are about 2.4 times what they were in 1980, and Xanadu opened on 250 screens, which is about 1/10 of the number it would open on today. Doing the math, Xanadu's adjusted opening weekend box office would be $36 million, which is respectable.

If you conduct an on-line search for the word "Xanadu," 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. The movie was intended to catapult Newton-John onto the A-list and give Kelly a chance to strut his stuff for a new generation. Instead, it ended up pretty much finishing both of their acting careers. Kelly never made another feature film (by choice - after Xanadu, he only appeared in a couple of TV mini-series), and Newton-John went back to music. Within a year, she would release the smash, multi-platinum album, "Physical."

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 Newton-John. She may not be the greatest actress of her generation, but she's gorgeous, and she has a great singing voice. She was at the peak of her career in 1980 - the girl next door and every teenage boy's wet dream all rolled into one. Watching her in this, her second best-known role (after Grease), it's almost possible to believe she is a Muse sent by Zeus. The precise Muse is Terpsichore, whose specialty is dancing. I guess that's the closest one comes to roller skating, which is what this film is about. Xanadu was originally conceived as a roller-disco picture (they, like skating, were all the rage in the time period), but it underwent significant changes during pre-production.

Then there's the late Gene Kelly. Some long-time fans have lamented that this represents Kelly's farewell to feature films, 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). It wasn't a good one (director Robert Greenwald was in way over his head), 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. And, believe or not, we get to see Kelly on skates.

What's the story? Does it matter? Zeus' Muses arrive in 1980 Southern California to spread inspiration. Kira (Newton-John) has been selected to re-invigorate the love of painting in Sonny Malone (Michael Beck). She does so with a kiss and a lot of roller skating, which I suppose functions as foreplay for the PG crowd. Around this time, Sonny befriends old-timer Danny McGuire (Kelly), a former Big Band musician who wants to open a dance club. With more than a little help from Kira, the two become partners and the result of their efforts is "Xanadu," the hottest night spot in the Beverly Hills area. But there's trouble ahead for Sonny and Kira. Zeus wants his daughter home, and he's not happy that she developed feelings for a mortal. He's also probably a little cranky because Mount Olympus has gone all neon.

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. The acting (especially by Andy Gibb-lookalike 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 an 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. The soundtrack soared. Of its ten tracks, two ("Magic" and "Xanadu") were hits. Two more ("Suddenly" and "Don't Walk Away") got significant airplay. "All Over the World" is a lingering favorite, although that probably has something to do with the truly bizarre way in which it is presented. These are the '80s at their worst.

There are two likely reactions to Xanadu, both of which are valid. One is to turn it off midway through because the headache is getting too severe. The other is to laugh and hum your way through it. Newton-John brings warmth and appeal. Kelly brings a touch of class and a reason for lovers of the great MGM musicals to smile. And Beck brings great hair. Don Bluth gives us a magical little animated sequence (which really doesn't belong in this movie, but never mind). Xanadu may not achieve its director's original lofty ambitions but, by failing so spectacularly, it has become much more. Had the film been a modest financial and creative success, it would likely be forgotten today. As it is, however, "Xanadu" has become more closely associated with this film than with all the other aforementioned things combined.

Xanadu (United States, 1980)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 1980-08-08
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1