Movie Review: Xanadu

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One of the Greek muses inspires an artist and a clarinet player to open a club.

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Robert Greenwald, 1980

Sonny Malone (Michael Beck) is a struggling artist who lacks inspiration. After quitting his job painting bigger versions of album covers to display outside record stores (WTF moment tally: 1), he’s been forced to beg for his job back, lacking focus in his artistic vision. His failed drawings summon Kira (Olivia Newton-John), otherwise known as Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance (WTF tally: 2). Kira kisses Sonny on the street and then roller skates away, leading him to become obsessed with her. He sees her on the cover of one of the albums he paints, standing in front of an art deco building that has since become abandoned. One day he spots her on the street and chases after her, then meets Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly!), a retired clarinet player and business mogul who dreams of opening a club called Xanadu. Kira, once Danny’s muse when he was younger, inspires them to work together to realise Danny’s dream using the art deco building she once stood in front of (WTF moment tally: 3). While they work together, Kira finds herself falling in love with Sonny, who is yet to discover her secret.

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This movie is full-time roller-skating disco-dancing insanity. Nothing in it makes sense, from the dialogue to the meagre yet confusing plot to the upbeat and frequently out-of-place songs. The film tries to marry the big band music of the golden age of musicals with disco, to mostly disastrous effect (if this movie taught me one thing, it’s that there’s no two styles more distinct from each other than disco and big band). Some of the lines are only guilty of being cheesy, but others make literally no sense in the context of the scenes they’re in. Sonny’s main enemy, his boss Simpson (James Sloyan), is the kind of cookie cutter villain that is so over the top he’s actually funny. He spouts lines like “Don’t make your paintings too good!” and “Give up on your dreams!” with a straight face, and shows up everywhere to spoil Sonny’s fun. I actually yelled at my screen on more than one occasion; during the film’s big climactic Xanadu number, the performing muses suddenly change into country gear and start singing a country version of the song for some ungodly reason. The ending is confusing, as well – it seems like it’s really happening, but then there’s magic, and then it seems like Sonny dreamed it all. Then again, if you’ve made it to the end without getting confused you’re doing well – the film doesn’t even explain that Kira is a muse until more than halfway in, and for a while I thought she might be some kind of time-travelling artist groupie.

Olivia Newton-John is charming but she’s given nothing to work with in Kira, who has almost nothing to do in spite of being the character the whole thing hinges on. Michael Beck is wallpaper, the zero-threat who can’t act, sing, dance, or contribute in any meaningful way to the movie apart from advancing the plot by being a jerk. Only Gene Kelly is any good, gliding effortlessly from scene to scene and being the only actor who looks at home on roller skates despite being 68 (!) years old when this movie was made. He was SIXTY EIGHT and he out-dances, out-acts and out-charms everybody else in this film. A more traditional dance scene between him and Olivia Newton-John added after the main filming was complete is by fair the highlight of the movie, and he elevates even terrible scenes like his roller-skating department store makeover simply by being in them. (And I know I’m biased because of my 29-year crush on the man, but I listened to How Did This Get Made and they agreed with me, so I know I’m not far off the mark here.) A couple of the other numbers aren’t bad, though the aesthetic is still a weird clashing mess (don’t even get me started on Mount Tronlympus, a black space lit up with neon lines where the voices of Zeus and Hera reside, or the Don Bluth animated love song sequence). Having said all this, the movie is highly enjoyable in its terribleness. If you are a connoisseur of hilariously watchable train wreck movies, then this will be right up your alley – for all that it was bad, I actually had a good time watching it, even by the time it was into its sixtieth scene involving incongruous roller skating. So watch it for fun, but it’s not a classic by any stretch.

Xanadu on IMDb

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