Xanadu (1980), or Samuel Taylor Coleridge Loved Musicals… Right?

2 09 2009

I’m very much of the mind that if you are planning on making a movie that bends genre lines, make sure that those two lines are not musicals and Greek mythology. It honestly shouldn’t be that hard of a line not to cross. But somehow, the makers of today’s film have broken that sacred law and unleashed a horror upon the cosmos more terrifying than a black hole wrapped in solar flares and drizzled in radiation! Well, it’s not THAT bad, but Xanadu has som great things going for it that don’t amount to shit because its premise is so tack and campy. Filled with Greek Goddesses, aged tap dancers, roller-skating, ELO, and disco at the end of its rope, I’m flabbergasted a movie came out this kooky that was not directed by my own subcounscious.

It begins with young and optimistic artist Sonny, who wants to get out of the incredibly lame business of painting large versions of album covers on store windows. He has definite talent, but he just can’t seem to break into the art scene, which is pretty common for most people with talent. Things are looking grim for the promising lad when one day he finds a beautiful and entrancing girl named Kira after painting a strange album cover on a store window. Through a series of conversations, it comes out that she is actually a Muse. A real Greek Muse from olden times who has reappeared in the late 70s/early 80s through a mural (art is how the Muses enter our world). Kira and Sonny hit it off, and she begins inspiring him, specifically to open up a nightclub called Xanadu with an aging big-band conductor named Danny. With Kira’s powers of inspiration, the world is Sonny’s oyster! That is, until Zeus, mightiest of the gods, decides that Kira has grown too fond of her human love interest! What can Sonny do in the face of the will of Zeus? I don’t know, but will DANCING help???

I’ve heard that this is somewhat based on the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan”, but I’m terribly dubious. This cacophony is about as inspired by Coleridge as Congo is by Kipling. It’s a leap, to say the least. It seems a bit more likened to the 1947 film Down to Earth, but that is also stretching it. Mostly, Xanadu is a last gasp of the disco generation and the struggle of the genre to find some vindication near the end of its life. It has a bunch of songs by ELO, trying desperately to hang onto their 70s rock crown, and Olivia Newton-John, who was desperately confused here as to where her career was going, and its roller-skating theme just screams “DATED CULTURAL MOTIFS!”

What really bothers me, and I mean REALLY bothers me, is that despite it being considered a magical and mystical musical romance, it feels incredibly stifling. It tries very hard to be inventive and overly clever, and I appreciate that, but the whole thing seems rather caged in and dingy, like the film soaked with a kettle of tea the whole time. A crucial factor in all this is the setting. Cloistered in the darkness of the art-deco 70s, the mood of the scene remains remarkably dour against the protests of all the actors who keep trying to convince us that there is fun involved in all this. But look at that trailer above; how many scenes actually make you feel light-hearted and whimsical? Hell, there’s even an animated segment that makes feels insular.

The songs are dated musical pap, but at least they’re kitschy. Olivia Newton-John belts out the title track like the regal pop princess she is, and she gets a little on the gloomy side for “Suspended in Time”, but the real stars here are ELO. At the end of their career as a band, they were still pumping out tunes that, while not as good as their early 70s material, were far superior to most of the synth disco coming out around that time. Tracks like “I’m Alive” really accentuate the mood, “Don’t Walk Away” fits the animation sequence nicely, and “All Over the World” was a fun montage diddy.

It has to be noted that this is the last performance by Gene Kelly. A gentleman with mountainous talent, he pioneered the musical and the dance number with one nimble swoop. Films like Anchors Aweigh changed the business forever, and it must be noted that he is an all-time legend and an immense American talent. That having been said, this isn’t exactly the movie for him. He’s enthusiastic and typical Gene Kelly, but instead of celebrating him, it felt like he was a museum piece, a bauble to point at and recall the old days where people didn’t lip sync as well and where they had the nerve to NOT listen to disco. It feels kind of demeaning, and even if they were celebrating him, this might not have been the most prestigious project for gentleman Gene Kelly to be working on.

It’s not the worst film of all time, but in the history of musicals, this ranks down near Repo! The Genetic Opera. I was not impressed one bit. Not only is the concept a little lame, but they totally underwhelmed in terms of scope and pageantry, something of a cardinal sin in the musical world. I’ll just say this; if you’re going to make a fun, care-free musical, do us all a favor and make it genuinely fun, because there is nothing worse than being let down at a musical; it should be outlawed. Xanadu was not fun; not god-awful, but not fun. I give it 4 Disco Ducks out of 10! Cluck!

Tomorrow I go back to Westerns with John Wayne’s The Searchers! Until then!!

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